The Blackwoods live in isolation; far from the prying eyes of the townspeople who reserve nothing but contempt for the family. Told from the perspective of the youngest daughter, Mary Katherine Blackwood, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of a mighty family brought to ruin by disastrous events that sealed their fate.
The first time I read this book in college was when I was introduced to Shirley Jackson. I couldn’t believe that I’d been missing out on reading this author’s works for years, never having heard of the books before.
It was also when my appreciation for stories with ambiguous endings was reinforced.
There’s a lot more than meets the eye in this gothic fiction. When Merricat (Mary Katherine) begins narrating the story and telling us how she detests going to town, you might attribute it to her general disposition or the fact that she is not closely acquainted with anyone in town.
But as the author starts revealing more about the Blackwoods and hinting at something grave that happened six years ago, it all falls into place.
The scorn that the Blackwoods face. Constance (Merricat’s older sister) remaining indoors and never venturing out. Merricat’s fixation with rules and superstitions – it all begins to make sense.
Shirley Jackson’s writing is rhythmic. She uses repetition and sentences that are heavy with a sense of foreboding. The novel is short enough that you can read it in a day if you are able to set aside a few hours.
It’s not a horror novel per se; at least not in the way The Haunting of Hill House is. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is unsettling in its exploration of what remains of our morality in dark times. Moreover, there’s also the sense that something is just not right that lurks beneath the storytelling.
It has an ambience that is full of suspense and challenges your ability to grasp what’s actually true.
With Merricat at the helm of the story, you are quickly won over. Not because she is a particularly loveable character but because of how transparent she is.
There’s a violence to her thoughts that you wouldn’t expect from someone of her age or personality. She is protective of Constance and hates to have anyone come between them.
A lot of the developments point to difficulties that the sisters may have had growing up in the family. I was sure that the Blackwoods are dysfunctional to a certain extent but exactly what role they’ve played in shaping Constance or Merricat is a matter that is hidden between the lines.
It’s not until the last quarter or so that you find out what had happened to the rest of them. And even this revelation is dropped all of a sudden in between a dialogue without too much of an explanation.
Even the first time and during this re-read, I kept forming theories.
Perhaps it’s a quality of Shirley Jackson’s writing that some questions are left unanswered in her works. And it is that quality (amongst several others!) that makes her stories unforgettable.
On the whole, I’m so glad to have re-read We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I foresee several more re-reads in the future. Highly recommend this book to fans of gothic novels that are puzzling and tense.