“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
― Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (opening paragraph)
One down, ninety-nine to go.
A couple of days ago, while working on my goals for 2018 I decided to set a goal of reading a hundred books in the year. Thinking about it, I decided the only way to pull this off was to read short books. I made a list of 66 short novels and wrote about it. Thinking more about it, I was excited enough to jump the gun and start the 100 books immediately. On my way home from work I stopped at the Richardson Library and, walking through the fiction stacks with my list in hand, chose six: The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, The Room by Jonas Karlsson, Heartburn by Nora Ephron, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.
I chose We Have Always Lived in the Castle (214 pages) as the first – read it last night and this morning. As I go through the books I plan on writing a blog entry – a little about each, as spoiler-free as possible.
I have, as has everyone, read Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story, The Lottery. I remember the horror and surprise when we read this in class, in maybe sixth grade, when we realized that this wasn’t going to be the usual school-bored approved feel-good literary treacle we were used to being served up to us. It was also a thrill as our young minds began to comprehend the potential and possibilities of literature.
There is a lot of The Lottery in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The style and setting are very different, but the overall themes are related. The fear and horror of the village and the evil that people, set in their ways, can wring. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is told in the first person of an eighteen year old girl and has a classic “unreliable narrator” – there is no doubt from the beginning that things are not quite as she sees them.
The book is touted as a “mystery” – though that’s misleading. There is really no doubt in the reader’s mind who is behind the “mystery” – the real question is what’s going to happen about it. Another interesting quirk is that the evil villagers – reviled throughout the book, are given a little bit of redemption towards the end. I liked that, I am a sucker for redemption.
I didn’t know much about the author or her life. Not surprising… her husband wrote about her: “she consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements. She believed that her books would speak for her clearly enough over the years” (from Wikipedia). That sounds pretty refreshing to me.
When you read about her married life in Wikipedia:
According to Jackson’s biographers, the marriage was plagued by Hyman’s infidelities, notably with his students. He controlled most aspects of their relationship. … He controlled their finances (meting out portions of her earnings to her as he saw fit), despite the fact that after the success of “The Lottery” and later work she earned far more than he did. He insisted that she raise the children and do all the mundane household chores. She felt patronized in her role as a faculty wife, and ostracized by the townspeople of North Bennington. Her dislike of this situation led to her increasing abuse of alcohol, tranquilizers, and amphetamines, and influenced the themes of much of her later work
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is her last novel and these themes are front and center in the novel.
One other bonus to reading this short novel – It looks like it is about to be made into a film. Alexandra Daddario, Sebastian Stan, and Crispin Glover. I always like to read the book before the movie comes out.
Now, on to the next. What should I choose….