Sunday 14 June 2009

Shirley Jackson (spoiler warning)

I have not read anything for weeks. This is sometimes the case when I really enjoy something, I am not sure what to try next. I have had this book for a few months now. I read this article about Shirley Jackson in The Independent (back in January it seems), tore it out and suggested 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' to my book group. The idea was sidestepped so I bought it anyway. I picked it up yesterday morning to take to work. (Convoluted explanation of why I get to take a book to work: We wait for 45 minutes for the lorry on Saturday, a kind of protest about the mailcentre's failure to return us to the 5.30am start time that was promised in the pay agreement. I do not care, in fact rather like the 6.15am start, but others think it would give them more family/football time on a Saturday to start earlier, so I just go along with it.) Anyway I only read a few pages as the lorry amazingly arrived at 5.50am, but that was enough to get me hooked. So I read it all evening and this morning with my cup of tea until it was done.
I liked the idea of this book because it would be a little outside my comfort zone. In the end it turned out to be exactly the kind of story I love. Jackson's most famous book is called 'The Haunting of Hill House' which was apparently made into a very notorious horror film, not something I would choose to watch. I would say that this book was definitely chilling and creepy, but did not veer into horror at any point. The cover illustration is very good and captures the atmosphere of the story beautifully. I put the spoiler warning because I want to write about the whole story and why I liked it so much.
The background to the situation of the story is disclosed gradually through the first few chapters. Uncle Julian, the only member to survive the family slaughter, writes and talks obsessively of what he refers to as the 'last day'. He also reminds the reader frequently that Constance was acquitted of the murders, so you know straight away that there was something very wrong in this family. So I have to tell you that I was pretty sure that Constance had nothing to do with it at all. The story is narrated by Merricat (Mary Katherine) and she is plainly the crazy one. You wonder at first if her craziness has been caused by the tragedy that befell her family, or if it is more deep rooted than that. The two sisters, and their uncle, have cut themselves off from the world, living in a grand house, which they preserve immaculately, and Merricat visits the village twice weekly for food and library books (which are somehow symbolic, the only outside thing that invades their safe haven.) It is as if their lives have become locked in to this tragedy that neither of them wants to look at directly but cannot escape.
So Merricat braves the hostility of the locals, who believe that her sister is a mass murderer, and tries to keep them safe by weird obsessive rituals. She buries items of value as offering, posts talismans around their house to ward off intruders, casts 'spells' around them and builds real and imaginary barriers between themselves and the outside world. But she is still afraid. And rightly so it seems for their house is invaded by their cousin Charles, who takes up residence in their father's room and begins upsetting their sense of security. Most sinisterly it seems that he manages to come between the girls. Merricat sees him as first a ghost and then a demon who must be removed from the house, where Constance seems almost pleased to have him around, someone who might rescue her from the life they are trapped in.
It is at this point that you really start thinking that it is not Merricat protecting Constance from a world that condemns her but most definitely the other way around. At one point Charles goes to the village for them, depriving Merricat of her task for the day. She does not know what to do and her thought process is described like this: "I wondered about going down to the creek, but I had no reason to suppose that the creek would even be there, since I had never visited it on Tuesday mornings". This is what is so good about the writing. The reader gets right inside the thinking of someone who is clearly very disturbed and has a very skewed view of the world. Her behaviour is controlled by rules that she obeys quite strictly, places she can and cannot go, things she can and cannot touch, tasks that are hers and tasks that are only for Constance. The rules seem to be also part of what keeps her safe and in control of her world.
It was only towards the end when Uncle Julian and Charles are arguing, about Merricat burying things (Charles digs up her box of silver dollars) when I realised I had not noticed something. Uncle Julian says "My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead, young man. She did not survive the loss of her family; I supposed you knew that." At no point in the book does Merricat talk to him, nor he to her. Constance does everything for him (he is ill and disabled by the long term effects of the poison that did not kill him) and Merricat is not permitted in his room. I had not see this as I read, only in retrospect was it obvious. So Merricat has lived all those years with her adoring sister, and a man who does not acknowledge her existence, no wonder she is going crazy.
The thing that is really thought provoking though, and intriguing was a little passage (sorry, I can't find it to quote the exact words) where Merricat is re-imagining the final evening of her family and her parents are saying such lovely things to her, about how good and obedient she is, and how she must have everything that she wants and everyone must love and respect her and how she never does anything to deserve punishment. Now the reality of the situation was that she had been sent to bed without dinner, for some unspecified misdemeanor, so you are left wondering about her life before the tragedy. She was plainly always 'odd' and probably incurred the annoyance and disapproval of her parents by her strange behaviour, when what she obviously craved was their love and acceptance. I am left with the impression that being sent to bed with no dinner was like a final straw for her. So when she says to Constance as they crouch in her secret hiding place after the villagers have ransacked the house, "I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die" it comes as no surprise when Constance replies, "The way you did before?" Merricat is a creepy and disturbing character, but I could not help but sympathise with her. I want to know what she did that caused the punishment, and I want to know what she thought as she poisoned the sugar, coldly and calculatedly, knowing that Constance was the only person who would not eat any. I just want to know. And I like a book that leaves you wondering.

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