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Classic Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on May 7, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is considered by many to be a cornerstone of the Gothic genre, America’s answer to the genre’s numerous European parents. The story follows Mary Catherine Blackwood, her beloved sister Constance and her uncle Julian as they try to exist in isolation, hiding from a hostile world following the murder of the vast majority of their family.

The deaths would normally form the central mystery of the novel, but thanks to the unique perspective of our narrator, it is rarely even considered relevant. Many of the mysteries that would normally be considered central to this type of novel are taken for granted by the terribly quick witted Mary Catherine, or Merricat as she is more often known. The cousin who appears with an interest in their wealth after he failed to inherit a fortune of his own is so blatant that the narrative doesn’t even bother to expound on his motivations. The rampant hostility felt towards the Blackwoods by the locals is similarly considered to be a matter of fact. Like every part of this book, significance if this key to the description.

Merricat attaches significance to objects and events, including a long list of things that she is forbidden from doing, which can be interpreted in many ways. The most common interpretation is that, combined with her hyper-sensitivity to certain events, it represents some form of mental illness, a sort of obsessive compulsive reaction to change in her life. There is an argument to be made for all of her rituals actually representing a form of sympathetic magic. She buries items around the property, she nails old and treasured items to trees and she believes that everyone else is equally bound by their own sets of rules and rituals that she sets about disrupting if they wrong her.

Merricat, as a protagonist, is absolutely fascinating as an example of a character who’s rich internal life is at least as significant, if not more significant, than the ways in which she interacts with the outside world. From the very beginning she constructs a world in which she is a sympathetic victim of circumstance, but one in which her mastery of her internal world allows her to withdraw as it becomes necessary. The interplay of her acute understanding of the reasons underpinning the actions of others and the entirely separate world that she occupies make up as much of the story as the events that take place. The wry understanding that passes between the Blackwoods as they deal with others, who are often seen as impaired for their inability to understand the underlying patterns that the sisters can see, is the source of a great deal of the humour and delight scattered through the book.

The mysticism and somewhat feral nature of Merricat blend seamlessly into the fairy tale aspects of the book that do not emerge until later. The Blackwoods are already bordering on urban legend or myth when the story begins and by the finale, their personal lives and their status as larger than life become one. The world falls into place around them and their patterns and routines protect them, just as they always have.

I have only touched on a single aspect of this truly wonderful book in this review, even if the Gothic genre is of no interest to you, this book is still a worthwhile and highly enjoyable read, combining clever, almost lyrical prose with a sharp edged plot and enough twists and turns to keep even the most attention deficit reader engaged.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More