Saturday, June 13, 2009

What's your poison?

Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle has been on my wish list for the longest time ever. When I saw it in an obscure bookstore in Pasig, I just have to buy it. It's a good thing that it was on sale. (If you want to know where this bookstore is, just write me a comment. Their stocks are amazing!)

Most of us are familiar with Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which is easily one of the best horror novels ever. Also, her short story, "The Lottery," is probably the most read in its genre. So naturally, you'd assume that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a ghost story or, at the very least, a gothic novel. Well, it's not. Although there's a pervading mood of menace throughout its 150 pages. Right from the start, you just know that something bad is going to happen.

The novel centers on the surviving members of the once-esteemed Blackwood family -- Uncle Julian and his nieces 28-year-old Constance and 18-year-old Merricat. These 3 have somehow become outcasts in town because of a dark incident involving murder. Eight years ago, most of the Blackwoods died while having dinner, apparently victims of arsenic poisoning by Constance. Constance gets acquitted of the charges and becomes a recluse, taking charge of all the chores needed in the Blackwood estate. It is left to Merricat, the book's main character, to go to town and buy the things they need every week. When Merricat goes to the town's store and cafe, people immediately start whispering and talking about how much they hate the Blackwoods, their money, and their murderous history. Merricat takes no need of all this, being the strong and willful young woman that she is.

When their cousin Charles decides to visit the family and stay with them for good, the Blackwoods peaceful existence is disrupted. Charles immediately wants to take control of all the family's finances and clashes with Merricat, who only wants her cousin to leave. As a last resort, Merricat sets the upper section of their house on fire. The fire provides a pivotal point in the novel, with their uncle perishing in it and the townsfolk chanting "Let it burn. Let it burn." And when the fire finally comes under control, people start throwing stones at the house, smashing windows and the Blackwoods' cherished china. Merricat and Constance stay hidden while all this is happening, helplessly watching the rape of their own home.

I don't really want to give away as to what happens in the ending. I don't want to spoil a really good thing. Jackson's writing is truly atmospheric; you get a sense that something is really not right between Constance and Merricat. There maybe too many unanswered questions about the narrative: how Constance got acquitted murdering the rest of the Blackwoods, what really happened on that fateful night 8 years ago, are Constance and Merricat really related, and what drives Constance to protect Merricat and vice versa. But somehow, all these are irrelevant; they take a backseat to the story of a family that is doomed by their past, their secrets, and the people around them.

People looking for a creepy read may find themselves a bit disappointed with the novel, especially when they've read The Haunting of Hill House. There are no ghosts and no direct reference on anything paranormal. But the book is one of the most enjoyable reads I've encountered lately. It's wonderfully weird, ultimately sad, and surprising in its twists. IMHO, Jackson is in her finest form here.

Read this book if:
  1. You want a fast but satisfying read.
  2. You're a big fan of dysfunctional families.
  3. You've been the subject of malicious gossip.


fantaghiro23 said...

Of course I want to know where this bookstore is!:)

By the way, I love Shirley Jackson. Though I have yet to read a full-length novel of hers, I collect her short stories. I like her atmospheric stories, but I love her tongue-in-cheek comedies more. They usually have wonderful social commentary.

gentle said...

welwelwel.. a wonderful review/ synopsis, kyusireader! :) its my first time here to encounter shirley jackson and her works.. from the way you presented her and this particular book, i'm really really intrigued.:) puhlease post the necessary directions on how go about reaching this quaint bookstore you mentioned! thanks.

Something's Dishy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi Peter - Just came across this old posting of yours. I just read this book and reviewed it in my new blog:

Come take a look and please tell me where is this secret bookstore in Pasig? Does it have old Penguins and old editions of classic novels??