Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods - until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.
Student review by Sibylla Archdale Kalid
A Review of Shirley Jackson's 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle'
The thing which initially drew me to this book was the ominous title, and the novel
certainly lives up to this first impression. The story of the dregs of a family living in
self-imposed isolation is deliciously creepy, right up until its discordant end. The ‘we’
of the title refers to 18-year-old Merricat running wild and free in the grounds of the
family home with her cat, Jonas; her sister Constance, acquitted of murdering the rest of
the family with poisoned sugar; and Uncle Julian, ageing, decaying, and devoted to his
project of writing the story of the deaths. On the peripheries of their simple existence
are the villagers, loathed by and loathing the inhabitants of the house, a state of
affairs which is seemingly without reason or beginning. Breaking through the bounds of
routine blunders Cousin Charles, armed with dubious motives and, in Merricat’s eyes, the
means of destroying their fragile existence.
It is Constance who was accused of murder, but as the book progresses the reader begins
more and more to question the sanity of the narrator herself. This balance on the edge of
fact and fantasy is something which the novel maintains constantly and which renders it so
compelling, with the reader (and characters) questioning events which other characters
maintain are truth. In most novels, a narration in first person would create an intimate
relationship with the confiding narrator, but in ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ the
first person narrative creates instead a startling journey through a troubled mind, which
refuses to give up its secrets. Merricat rarely touches upon the past, so that her
childhood life and relationships are an obscurity. Jackson’s crafting is immaculate; if
all was explained and every ounce of the past examined the divine mystery of the book
would be lost. Instead she reveals enough to give satisfaction, but not closure, so that
the reader is left with a breath still in limbo. Despite the lack of a fast-paced plot,
the dynamic of ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is taut as a string, and the reader is
spurred on with brilliant wit and sharp black humour. This novel was Shirley Jackson’s
swansong, and it rings out with a chilling beauty - in a minor key.