Saturday, September 2, 2017

On Reading: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Click... creak...crack...pop..

Sorry. Those are the sounds of my knuckles cracking out the air bubbles that formed since the last time I posted something here.

Hello! How are you? Good? Safe? Dry? Looking for something nice to read? 

You're in luck because I have just finished what is undoubtedly the most spectacular book I have read in a very long time. One of those rare books that leave you a bit sad at the last page because you suddenly realise that you're only get to read it for the first time once. Make sense? Have you ever experienced that before? With a book that wasn't Harry Potter that is? 

I discovered We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson on my Kindle app's recommended reads list. Over the last three years, I got very lazy in my endeavour to discover beautiful books and came to rely heavily on this system. I mean, why bother browsing aisles at a bookstore when there's an algorithm that can give you exactly what you need without you having to leave the comfort of your bed, right? 

Well, I don't know about you, but while I appreciate the algorithm on nights when I really want something quick, mindless and easy, every other time, the experience of discovering a book that has nothing whatsoever to do with what you usually veer towards is what makes a read even more pleasurable. 

The guilt of finding book after book that I did not mind, even if I didn't feel passionately enough to blog about, actually hurled my reading habit against a wall. I often found myself reading half a book and then abandoning it for something else which I would also abandon and then start the process again. It was like being caught in a vortex and the only place I was spinning towards was down. 

But just as I was starting to lose hope I decided to take a leap of faith and typed in the name of a book I had seen a long time ago on my Recommended list but didn't really 'feel' at the time -- I was just moving from Goth into erotica, so sue me. 

And I'm really really glad I did because Shirley Jackson's masterpiece is perhaps one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking literary works I have read in a very long time. This is also my first book by the author so I'm rather looking forward to taking a small break -- maybe read Delta of Venus again (haha, I kid) -- before I start The Haunting of House Hill

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of those rare books that has a tragic beginning but has a happy ending -- even if it isn't happy in the conventional sense. It starts off with a market day for 18-year-old Mary Katherine (Merricat) who, you can tell instantly, isn't quite right. Or at least that's what the villagers think about her and her family. Well, the ones who are still alive anyway. The rest of her family, father, mother, brother and aunt, are all dead. Murdered, in fact, one night after they sprinkled a bit too much sugar -- laced with arsenic -- on their berries for dessert. 

So yes. Perhaps we understand why Merricat isn't quite right in the head. Though, once we get more of an insight into her mind, she is after all narrating the story, we realise that she is rather unapologetic about it. All that she wants is to be kinder to her Uncle Julian, the only survivor of the poisoning that night, love, be loved by and protect her older sister Constance, the prime suspect of the murders and for everyone in the village outside her mansion to die painfully. 

"I always stood perfectly straight and stiff when the children came close, because I was afraid of them. I was afraid that they might touch me and the others would come at me like a flock of taloned hawks' that was always the picture I had in my mind -- birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws." 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (p. 10)

Yes, market days are the worst of it for little Merricat until Cousin Charles comes along and starts to tear holes in family dynamics. He's also rather interested in the family safe, but that really isn't something Merricat's too worried about. It's Charles' influence over Constance that actually starts pushing Merricat into a swirl of darkness that forces her to face issues she would rather leave buried under the Amanita Phalloides

In a lot of ways this is a story about love, the pursuit of happiness and about the things that go on behind deadlocked gates, in misunderstood mansions that send imaginations and villagers for the pitchforks.

Given that this is such a thin book -- around 160 odd pages -- I really wish I could write another post in greater detail about how I felt after reading this book. And about all the memories from my own childhood living beside a crumbling building. Mansions, grand or ruined, which house recluses like the Blackwood family always give fodder to the imagination. And unless we're on the inside, we're no better than the villagers who gossip, speculate, bully and finally, destroy.

You know what? I think a We Have Always Lived in the Castle does deserve another post. So maybe you could give it a quick read as well -- took me 5 hours over two very, very dark nights -- and come back so we can make a nice little conversation of it.

Until next Saturday!

Afsha 💙

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