We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson, was published in 1962.
The story is narrated by Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood. She’s eighteen years old and lives with her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian. Everyone else in her family is dead.
Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian live in an orderly house. Things are always where they belong, and there have always been Blackwoods living in the house.
Every Friday and Tuesday, Merricat walks into the village for groceries and library books. She plans her walk carefully. “The people of the village have always hated us,” she tells us. The children in the village taunt her with a poem as she walks by.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
Society ladies come calling on the Blackwood house on a regular basis, but most people are afraid to visit the Blackwoods. And even the society ladies won’t eat anything with sugar in it, when visiting Constance and Mary Katherine. Uncle Julian is quick to remind them that Constance had been acquitted of the murders.
It is Uncle Julian who narrates what happened at that family dinner. It is he who defends Constance for washing out the sugar bowl. Merricat wasn’t there. She’d been sent to her room for misbehaving. She’d been sent to an orphanage during the trial.
Uncle Julian hasn’t been the same since surviving the arsenic poisoning. He’s called eccentric. He rambles. He gets people’s names wrong. His doctor doesn’t trust Uncle Julian’s memory.
Uncle Julian claims to be writing a book about the events surrounding the trial.
One day, Cousin Charles arrives. Merricat sees the signs that his arrival is a bad thing. She sees that he is not real – that he is a ghost. She needs her magic to drive him away.
And things do get worse.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a book that drew me into its world. Its words perfectly create the feel and pace of a small town life. The people of the village are a believable society which is simultaneously cruel and kind.
And about that night, six years ago: What we know is what a girl with an active imagination tells us that her eccentric uncle says happened. Constance, meanwhile, isn’t telling us anything. (Even that might not be accurate.)
I loved this book. I loved it a lot.
- A book with an unreliable narrator