I had read Shirley Jackson’s The House on the Hill, as part of last year’s RIP and absolutely loved it. Therefore when this year’s RIP came about, it made perfect sense to revisit another work by this brilliant author and I picked up the highly recommended We have Always Lived in the Castle.
The book begins with the narrative of Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat as she is called by her sister, Constance, who is on her way to the village to get groceries and books from the Library. Merricat tells the reader that only she can make this trip to the village because Constance is still struggles to leave even the Blackwood garden, for the last 6 years. Merricat knows that she is being taunted at while she goes about doing her chores and in her mind she plots revenge against her hecklers. It is soon revealed that in the now almost empty Blackwood mansion, Merricat lives with her elder sister Constance and their invalid uncle Julian. They have very few visitors and most of their day is spent cooking , reading and cleaning, while Uncle Julian writes his book. This has been the state of things for last 6 years, when Constance and Merricat’s parents, brother and aunt were killed due to Arsenic poisoning after dinner. Constance was charged by the police, but acquitted due to lack of evidence. Since then the two sisters had sequestered themselves in the Blackwood house, never going out and almost never entertaining guests, living their lives in an inward looking set routine. Things however begin to change, when their cousin Charles comes visiting. While Constance is happy to finally have some company, both Merricat and Uncle Julian are dissatisfied with the change. Uncle Julian feels that Charles is here to get his nieces money and disrupt his work; while Merricat believes Charles is responsible for the breakdown of her daily routine and happy lives and for most importantly making Constance disgruntled with their lives, when she had been completely content with her lot, until Charles came. She begins to plot various schemes to get Charles out of the house and out of their lives, none of which work and she finally takes the drastic measure of burning down the house, leading to interesting revelations about the death of the Blackwood family and the new direction the lives of the sister would now have to take!
The book is brilliant! Ms. Jackson does not disappoint and from the very opening narrative, the reader’s attention is grabbed and curiosity aroused as to what happened to the Blackwoods. In Merricat, Ms. Jackson draws a brilliant character – obsessed, unapologetic and completely reckless, she is a unique creation if there is ever one. Her imaginations whether it about living on the moon or the discovery of three powerful words which will halt the changes that are happening in her life, leaves the reader in awe. I love the unapologetic attitude of Merricat and the fact that Ms. Jackson did not find any reasons to explain and elaborate the whys and the hows. I loved the irreverent approach of this is what it is and deal with it! In creating Constance, we find a perfect foil to Merricat’s character; Constance blames herself for what happened to the family and its fortunes and therefore accepts her sister’s anomalies and stands by her, irrespective of the latter’s action or more importantly its implication on Constance’s own life. She accepts her losss, because she feels she is worthy of the blame. Between the actions of the two sisters, there is a constant sense of feeling sympathy and discomposure, alternately! The constant cycle of food and preparation of it is wonderfully put down to reflect the one semblance of normalcy in the dysfunctional Blackwood family and how the ritual of breakfast, lunch and dinner provides, rhythm and occupation to players. I loved the ending – an irreverent end where apparently “evil” wins in a way that it allows the Blackwood sisters, again alternating the feelings of sympathy and disquiet! The language is simple and here again lies the brilliance of Ms. Jackson – without any blood and gore and through the means of clear simple words and phrases, she is able to convey a distinct discomfort and strangeness to the readers. There are no high flown theatrics, but as a reader you are left feeling eerie!
I am so glad I finally read this one – it was a perfect, absolutely perfect RIP reads and one of the best works I have read in the thriller/horror genr