“Much madness is divinest sense to a discerning eye”

This is my review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Modern Classics) by Shirley Jackson.

In this quirky psychological novel, eighteen-year-old narrator Merricat Blackwood is part child-like tomboy, part manipulative sociopath, fantasising about “living on the moon” with her beautiful elder sister Constance, who may be an agoraphobic with an obsessive desire to bottle food and clean the house, or simply unwilling to face the world after being acquitted of the poisoning of four close members of her family. Why was Constance found innocent with so much circumstantial evidence against her? What could have motivated her to commit the murders, particularly as she seems so gentle and incapable of violence? Is there a more obvious suspect, in which case how can this possibility have been overlooked?

The horrific crime has turned the local villagers’ longstanding resentment of a snobbish family into vicious bullying, masking fear of possible deviancy beyond their comprehension. Wealthy neighbours tend rather to a prurient curiosity, in its way just as bad. Shirley Jackson plays on our very similar reaction, skilfully dripping out clues to arouse and sustain our sense of unease and anticipation of horror beneath the bland exterior of a well-ordered, New England house with Dresden figurines and a harp in the drawing room and spice cookies cooling in the kitchen.

“I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes, and Constance had never asked me not to”, remarks the narrator Merricat, casually chilling. The menace contrasts with passages of innocent beauty as she plays with her acutely observed cat Jonah in “the long field which looked like an ocean, although I had never seen an ocean; the grass was moving in the breeze and the cloud shadows passed back and forth”.

How will the arrival of Cousin Charles, clearly interested in the Blackwood’s safe possibly packed with money, disrupt the contented balance in which the two young women against all rational expectations manage to conduct their lives, caring for the sole survivor of the poisoning, a half-senile, wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian?

As the story spins off the rails in its dramatic climax, it veers into black comedy so that, unless a liking for this genre is sufficient, one is left with admiration for Shirley Jackson’s writing, rather than any real empathy with the arguably insane characters. Casting around for deeper levels of meaning, I noted her portrayal of human nature – the way in which people who regard themselves as decent and normal may turn against individuals they find odd, even to the point of getting carried away into extreme behaviour, Nazi Germany being a case in point. The hostility of Jackson’s New York neighbours to her Jewish husband may have fed this theme.

Likewise, Jackson’s studies of social anthropology and interest in witchcraft may have moulded Merricat’s behaviour as she buries objects, hangs her father’s book in a tree, or invokes magic words to ward off unwelcome influences from outside, like Cousin Charles. Observation of once wealthy families, clinging to their superiority and clutter of possessions from past generations, unable to face up to the changing times, is another theme.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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