Shirley Jackson, the mind behind Netflix’s hit show The Haunting of Hill House, also wrote another fantastic, twisting tale: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I stumbled upon the novel by accident, having just finished Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (aka Blade Runner), and was looking for my next adventure. Jackson’s novel had been put into the book swap in the university’s Vicarage and it happened to catch my eye. Despite recognising the title, I knew nothing of the plot, so I decided to give it a go. Now it’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year; hopefully I can convince you to give it a chance, too!
This is a thriller with a fascinating mystery weaved into it. We are presented first with Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) Blackwood, the protagonist, on her weekly trip into the local village to get shopping for her family. However, the townsfolk are mistrustful and even aggressive towards her because of the rumour that surrounds her family: they believe her sister, Constance, whom we meet slightly later, poisoned their parents and brother. The novel explores the relationship between the family and the townsfolk, and tension builds following the arrival of their cousin, Charles, who seems intent on dividing the sisters.
Merricat is a young woman who lives with the only two surviving members of her family: Constance and Uncle Julian. Compared to her sister, Merricat is unconventional and enjoys exploring with her cat, Jonas. Constance, on the other hand, is the maternal figure of the household, a skilled gardener and cook, who takes care of her family. Julian (my favourite character!) is the girls’ uncle who is unwell and spends most of his time attempting to solve the murders of his family. Charles is materialistic and cruel towards Merricat and Julian, and is the primary antagonist.
The family’s social isolation, as well as Merricat’s violent fantasies and tendency to bury items as a sort of protective magic, enticed me with the idea that they were supernatural beings. Jackson manages to convey her characters in an eerie, fascinating way whilst also keeping the story grounded in reality.
Jackson’s subtle illustration of the novel’s horror is a gripping psychological journey, even to those more interested in reading drama or fantasy like myself. I particularly enjoyed the ongoing mystery of who really poisoned the Blackwoods, which had me attempting my best Sherlock impression and kept me guessing until the revelation in the novel’s climax.
Best of all is the book’s pacing: it describes scenes and characters in enough detail without leaving you feeling bored. And with only 146 pages, it’s a relatively quick yet engaging read.
When I first finished the novel, I was left with a strange feeling of having thoroughly enjoyed it without being able to pinpoint exactly why. So, naturally, I took to Reddit, reading fan-theories about the ending, which only made my appreciation for the book grow. The more I looked, the more I discovered – so many subtle indications throughout the book foreshadowing the big reveal! Not wanting to spoil the ending, I will only say this: if you do decide to read this book, be prepared to experience Jackson’s literary genius.
And no, that’s not an over-estimation, that’s a promise.
Written by Bethany Taylor