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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Dresden figurine

Author: Shirley Jackson
First Published: 1962, by Viking Press

Shirley Jackson is best known for her short-story “The Lottery” (1948), as well as her novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959). But I’ve heard people say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of the best books they’ve ever read, and I am in total agreement with these people. I would go so far as to say that if I had to select my ten favorite books of all time, We Have Always Lived in the Castle would be one of them. The first paragraph is certainly one of the greatest openings ever written:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

In terms of first paragraphs, only García Márquez comes close.

Mary Katherine Blackwood (or “Merricat” as she’s called in the novel) is the paradigm of the unreliable narrator, reminiscent of the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, only with a more child-like and oddly welcoming writing style. From the beginning, you know this narrator is disturbed, and that you cannot trust anything she says. Her world is a self-created fantasy realm through which the “real story” pokes holes when she is not in control of her narrative. The irony here is of course that Jackson, the author, is in complete control of the narrative, and the book is a marvelous example of the magic a writer can work by withholding bits of information, and revealing other bits at just the right time.

The characters are exquisitely Dickensian (no surprise why I love this book so much), particularly Uncle Julian in his wheelchair, who calls to mind Mr. Dick from David Copperfield. And the final disaster that takes place near the end of the book is like some horrific riot right out of A Tale of Two Cities, or Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. There is an eerie pacing to the story, perfectly timed, that aggravates the mystery behind why everyone else in the family is dead. But it is the voice of the gifted, eccentric narrator that makes it impossible for me to put this book down.

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