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Jackson Castle.jpgI read this novel after a discussion on Facebook when I posted a picture of an Aminita muscaria mushroom and Rich Coad quoted the opening of We Have Always Lived in the Castle:

"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 Plantagenet, and Aminita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom."

This is a very odd, uncategorizable book. A lot of people call it gothic, and it certainly has elements of the gothic: an old, gloomy, isolated house; an atmosphere of the uncanny and the macabre. Others have called it a fairy tale, which also make sense, because it seems to take place in a magical Never Never Land remote from mundane reality. As the books opens, we learn that Merricat (short for Mary Katherine) is living in the old Blackwood mansion with her sweet sister, Constance, and doddering uncle, Julian. We learn that six years earlier, Merricat's parents, brother, and aunt (Julian's wife) were poisoned to death with arsenic. Julian also ate the poison, but while mentally and physically damaged, didn't die. Constance was accused of the murder but acquitted.

The book consists of Merricat's descriptions of their strangely idyllic life and their mutually hostile relationship with the hateful village they live outside of. Merricat is a complete savage, constantly dreaming of the deaths of those she hates, while at the same time living in a sweet adolescent world of the imagination that infuses every aspect of her life with magic. She loves her sister and her cat, Jonas. The novel as a whole is a psychological study of Merricat, and she is one hell of a character: agoraphobic, cunning, childish, loving, hateful, terrified, brash, murderous, and whimsical.

Eventually the isolated world of the three survivors is punctured by a greedy cousin who comes looking for the family fortune, and things start to spiral out of Merricat's tight control. Yet the action of the novel, such as it is, settles in a highly unusual way. The whole thing is highly unusual. I can't think of another book like it, and that's kind of an amazing accomplishment. The setting is gothic and morbid, but Merricat's observations are frequently very funny or absurd, so the only people I could think to compare this to were Charles Addams (The Addams Family) and Edward Gorey. Jackson seems like one of those oddball American writers -- Charles Portis would be another -- who aren't easily categorized and don't fit easily into American literary history.

Joyce Carol Oates has a much more detailed review at The New York Review of Books.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 27th, 2016 06:35 pm (UTC)
Sounds good. Ta!
Oct. 30th, 2016 02:59 am (UTC)
I also enjoyed an audiobook version recently.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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