Thursday 3 September 2009

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, plus photos

Leaving aside my short story weekend for Carl's RIP IV challenge, this is my first proper read for it. I always try to start with a shortish book that's not a difficult read and, judging by other blog reviews, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson was just about right for that niche.

Mary Katherine Blackwood, 'Merricat', is eighteen and lives with her sister, Constance, and Uncle Julian in a large house on the outskirts of the town:

"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."

The family are hated and despised by the people of the town and Mary, when she goes on her regular shopping expeditions, has to run the gauntlet of nasty comments from adults and taunting from the town's children. It soom becomes apparent that the town's hatred is based upon a court case that took place some years before. Constance was accused of putting arsenic it the sugar and thereby bringing about the deaths of her parents, an aunt, and a brother. She was aquitted of this crime but the family's notoriety has forced them into a reclusive lifestyle and Constance has not stepped outside their fenced in land since the trial. The girls' uncle is very elderly and his mind is wandering.

Into this mix wanders cousin Charles, banging on the door until he's reluctantly allowed in.

"He knocked, quietly at first and then firmly, and I leaned against the door, feeling the knocks hit at me, knowing how close he was. I knew already that he was one of the bad ones; I had seen his face briefly and he was one of the bad ones, who go around and around the house, trying to get in, looking in the windows, pulling and poking and stealing souvenirs."

Mary hates him on sight but Constance is much more willing to allow him to stay for a while. Slowly but surely he ingratiates himself with Constance, while slyly revealing his nasty side only to Mary. The girls' quiet, ordered life is destroyed; something will have to be done...

Well, this was an interesting little book. I have to say upfront that I didn't love it. I liked it, but somehow or other it didn't quite deliver for me. The writing was superb, I will say that, beautifully written in the first person, the author got right inside Mary Katherine's head. And a very confusing place it was! In that respect it was a very clever novel. I think the problem for me was that I guessed the secret of the story straightaway and was really expecting a further twist which never materialised. But that was my only complaint really.

The atmosphere in the book is genuinely creepy, even malicious in places, and very claustrophobic. I don't think I've read anything quite like it to be honest, partly because I don't think Shirley Jackson is a well known author in the UK and I've just never been exposed to her writing. I'd only really come across her more recently as the author of The Lottery a story to which Danielle of A Work in Progress directed her readers to some months ago. What a huge body of work, from all over the world, us pre-internet folk were denied all those years ago! But anyway, that's a whole 'nother story as they say. I enjoyed my first book for the RIP IV challenge and am looking forward to more now.

And because my trip to Stourhead on Monday resulted in some photos that are misty, rather autumnal and thus quite RIP-ish in atmosphere, I shall put them in this post rather than make a separate post of them.

The National Trust gardens of Stourhead in Wiltshire:



Unknown said...

Cool photos & good review. I've always had a fondness for this book.

Val said...

Beautiful photo's (Good book review too ...not my kind of book so a nice head's up so to speak)

DesLily said...

I have too many books to consider this one...but gads those photo's are fantastic Cath!! The fog does them justice! I envy you England!

Jodie Robson said...

Your photos of Stourhead are just lovely, I want to go there.

I've been meaning to read the Jackson book for ages, I really like the sound of it. I'm impressed at how much you've managed to read and blog about already.

Ana S. said...

I'm sorry to hear the novel didn't quite deliver for you. And wow, what gorgeous photos!

Cath said...

Caitlin: It's an interesting book and I understand why you would have a fondness for it. I was kind of surprised at how much I empathised with Mary Katherine myself!

Val: Glad you like the photos. I agree that book reviews are useful not only to tell you what you might like but also to warn against books that you probably won't.

Hi Pat. I don't think this book would be your kind of thing. There's not a great deal about it that's cheerful.

I was bemoaning the misty conditions on Monday until I realised that my photos would be quite atmospheric because of them.

GeraniumCat: Stourhead is beautiful and quite famous as a TV series and film location. A scene from Bleak House was filmed there for instance and something Austen but I can't remember what.

The Jackson book is well worth a read if you like that kind of thing. The writing is just fantastic.

I found Witch Wood in the library today but not The Hound of Death unfortunately.

Nymeth: it's just one of those things with books, win some, lose some, but it certainly was not a *bad* read.

Glad you enjoyed the photos.

BooksPlease said...

Lovely photos - so atmospheric.

I really liked We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I too guessed the secret very quickly but it was the working out that intrigued me and as you say Merricat's head is a very confused head! She is a distubed and disturbing character. It's a macabre tale, portraying fear, resentment, hostility and persecution. Yes, genuinely creepy!

Carl V. Anderson said...

Great review. I read it last year and really enjoyed it. I think my biggest problem with it (Possible Spoiler) is that I didn't find the actions of Charles to be very genuine. I felt like he was a bit of a gold digger all along and it seemed to me that he gave up too easily in the end. Perhaps it is seeing too many modern movies, but I expected him to have a more violent reaction than he did. I still really enjoyed the book though. It was very atmospheric and creepy and well written. Perfect reading for this time of year.

Your photos are lovely. The bridge and the place with columns remind me so strongly of a specific scene in the Keira Knightely version of Pride and Prejudice.

Kate said...

Wonderful review - and amazing photographs! Mist be damned - they're beautiful, atmospheric, and perfect for this review too.

I read Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House before I read this one, and I do think that Hill House is a superior tale on just about every level. The characters were more complex, as was the story, plot, and setting, and Hill House was much more deeply psychological. I did enjoy Castle, just not as much- I too guessed the secret well in advance of the reveal. But Jackson's writing is fantastic, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Thanks for the great review!

Cath said...

Booksplease: I'm certainly tempted to try some of Jackson's other books now. Always good to discover a new supernatural writer.

Carl: to me Charles was a tiny bit clich├ęd - too much the typical 'cat among the pigeons' almost psychotic bad guy. There was not enough subtlety. But I still liked the book despite having one or two issues with it.

Glad you liked the photos - I think that building was in fact the place where that scene in the P&P movie was filmed. It was also used for a scene in the BBC's recent adaptation of Bleak House (highly recommend that if you've never seen it). The gardens are used a lot in filming because of their uniqueness.

Kate: so pleased you enjoyed the photos. Stourhead has many moods and I've seen a few but never like this - it was magical.

I'll check my library catalogue to see if they have The Haunting of Hill House. You've definitely made me want to read it now. This always happens to me with RIP... I make a list of my own and then proceed to read people's recs rather than my list! LOL.

Thanks for your comment.

Susan said...

Love the photos, Cath! they are superb, moody and just right for RIP. Thank you so much!

I really enjoyed your review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I have always found it very creepy and claustrophobic also. Haunting of Hill House is superb - like your other commenter said- better in many ways - truly frightening too - so I hope you can get to that soon.

You are doing so well at this challenge! Yikes, I've just started my first book! lol

Anonymous said...

I am quite intriqued by this one, the title and the cover art are attractive, thanks for the informative review, I will keep this one in mind.
Your photos are just beautiful, I wish I was in nice, cool, misty England, we are about to enter the hot days of spring and summer.

Cath said...

Susan: Glad you enjoyed the photos.

I'll search out The Haunting of Hill House at some stage. I'll probably end up reading it for *next* year's RIP. LOL.

Book Pusher: I agree, the cover art of this one is absolutely superb and suits the book perfectly.

Glad you enjoyed the photos. This is my favourite time of year. I don't deal with extreme heat all that well so do not envy you your hot Aussie summer. But I bet it's beautiful there all the same!

Paperback Reader said...

I can't wait until my copy of this arrives and I hope it delivers. I am sorry it didn't for you however.

I think that we in the UK have been deprived of Shirley Jackson; I too only came across her a few months ago via "The Lottery" and felt a little ignorant when I realised she is taught in schools in the US. I am pleased that Penguin are re-releasing her work here so that she is easily accessible.

Vintage Reading said...

Cath, I'm intrigued by that book and your review. Is the title an allusion to I Capture the Castle? Is it a young adult book?

Cath said...

Paperback reader: I think there may be an awful lot of American authors - and other nationalities - whose books we've never heard of. Everything was so insular before the internet. A few classic authors crossed the boundaries from various sides but a lot of really good authors never did. At least now we have a chance to catch up!

I wondered that myself, Nicola, and am not sure of the answer. I Capture the Castle is the older of the two books I believe so it could well be that Jackson meant there to be a connection. But I can't personally see what it would be.

No, I wouldn't call it a YA book but I'm not sure why. Teens could read it but I wouldn't give it to anyone under 15 as it's really quite an unsettling book.

Tara said...

I love those photos!

I really like this book and loved the creepy atmosphere. I think I agree with you in that the secret isn't really so secret. I found it satisfying just the same though. I want to try something else by Jackson one of these days.

Cath said...

Tara: so glad you liked the photos. My next batch will from a day out in North Cornwall yesterday.

I agree with you about the book, I really liked the unusualness of it. The Haunting of Hill House is the other book by her that a lot of people seem to read. My library doesn't have it but I did manage to find a book of her short stories to read for RIP.