Thursday, October 1, 2015

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

 "My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead, young man.  She did not survive the lost of her family; I supposed you knew that."
"What?"  Charles turned furiously to Constance.
"My niece Mary Katherine died in an orphanage, of neglect, during her sister's trial for murder.  But she is of very little consequence to my book, and so we will have done with her"
"She is sitting right here."  
Page 93

I think I love everything about this book.  The fact that I'm not sure is what is driving me crazy.  As I was reading, I kept asking myself, "What is going on?"  There is a mystery or uncovering of the past that is fun and very intriguing.  When I finished the book I kept asking myself, "What the hell is going on?"  My confusion aside, it's always better to leave readers wanting more than wishing you shut up two-hundred pages ago.  (I'll name no names…)

Perhaps I need help in understanding something: what are the factors that determine how to read a book?  When do we accept what is written on the surface and go with it and when do we search for something deeper; perhaps applicable to the human nature?    

A large--and wealthy--family has been nearly wiped out; the accused acquitted; and no motive or further suspects established.  That is the concept the story is built on though I wouldn't call it 'the plot.'  Learning about Mary Katherine, the novel's main character, is the point of story.  

Seeing things through the 'eyes of a child' often obscures adult perception.  For doing so even half as well as she did Jackson deserves all praise that can be given.  However Mary Katherine is eighteen, a rather nebulous age in terms of maturity, added to which she is the survivor of a horrible incident that is sure to have left some mental scars.  PTSD initially came to mind; her extreme anti-social behavior, expressed desire to kill everyone in town, and overtly repetitious nature points fingers in many directions, but at some point in time I gave up on reasons for her behavior and rolled with, "This chick is plain old crazy."  And suddenly, everything was illuminated.  

Everyone in this story is crazy.  And by crazy I mean not in a right state of mind.  

Uncle Julian, who is invalid, and wheelchair bound is obviously suffering from some sort of dementia.  Mary Katherine's sister, Constance the accused, had more problems than I could account for.  The town they live in, is comprised of a very stereotypical angry mob, they were most certainly crazy (the town actually made the most sense if that gives any indication as to how bad the others are).  

Everything changes when a reader abandons rational thought and stops trying to understand 'why' and accepts the world as a madhouse.  All of a sudden Mary Katherine's 'magic' makes sense; only perhaps she is a bit too old to be a 'practitioner' of such arts; her talking to her cat and incessant desire to go to the moon all make sense.  Constance's maintenance of daily life, as if her family hadn't just been murdered, makes sense.  Uncle Julian's incessant need to go over the details of the family's last day and need of assurance that 'It really did happen, didn't it?' makes sense.  It all made sense because they're all crazy.  

It took the implementation of a rational, reasonable character in Cousin Charles who is filled with nothing more than the most base human emotions, jealously, envy and greed, to expose the rest of the family as they nuts they are.  

As a second tragedy occurs (more 'magic' gone awry) another family member is lost, one driven away, and the survivors retreat further into themselves than I would have though possible--even for this book, and yet amends are made between the town and the family.  It was upon reaching the end that I was left with my predicament outlined at the beginning as the family and town reconcile on some bizarre level, as all mysteries are solved and everything and everyone is exposed for what they are, is this just a really good story (all kinds of weird though) that I need to accepted on the surface or is there some greater correspondence to human nature that I'm not making at the present?  

I may need more time to think than the few days that have past since I finished reading.  It's a really short book and, while not dense, the pages don't fly by.  It's extremely well controlled despite the chaos happening on the page; so much so that I can't help but think that the prosaic--near stiff--presentation was intentionally done to better highlight so much complicit, moral, wrongness and the burgeoning psychosis of so many.

It's really, really weird and I'll probably never sort out how I feel about it so for now, I'll go with, "It was great!"  


Marion said...

You picked the perfect "October" book. Then very ending of this book, when I thought I knew where we were going and then we, well, just didn't go there, has always baffled me and probably always will. But I loved this one.

Chad Hull said...

There are multiple facets of the end that made be scratch my head, but in the context of the book I thought it worked.