Book Review: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”
By Christina Brennan
Warning, this review contains spoilers regarding the central plot of the book.
This novel is the epitome of a southern gothic horror story, with famous horror writer Shirley Jackson adding slow molasses, sticky and suffocating accents to the leering and hateful figures of the town who await a fate that will take away the stubborn stain that has been on their town for generations, the Blackwood family. This infamous family is met quickly in the beginning by joining the youngest of those that remain, Merricat, a simple grocery trip. This book quickly takes a dark turn, Jackson steering directly into the plot as we realize that the “protagonist” of the book harbors dark feelings towards the townspeople, her life, thoughts that are torn between wanting things to disappear or stay the same way forever.
Constance, Merricat, and Uncle Julain all live in an old large house set away from a penurious and dusty town that has been trapped under a curse that has made them hateful and longing for things they would never say. The family has become ostracized, with two of the members becoming recluses that find solace in repetition of daily tasks that have become defining mechanisms for coping and maintenance, such as cooking or writing a book with a multitude of chapters all addressing a single, fateful, day.
This strange and compulsive way of living seems to govern nearly everything in the book, even nature, everything stays the same, resolve is never found and avoidance poisons generations so deeply that it seeps into the children they birth. This is where the root of the evil that strikes not only the Blackwood family, but the entire town is first established. With her allusions to what lurks beneath pretty surfaces, it is the central theme of the piece, avoidance. Look no further, and you will be alright, Jackson says this. Avoid everything in the middle, and skip to the end, everything is fine.
Each character has their own way: they avoid the hatred directed towards them, the fact that something dastardly happened, that their lives have stagnated to a point beyond repair. Jackson shows each of these behaviors as initially charming, to showcase how we are inclined to see rigidity as good, and therefore may see others in possession of this in a positive light. However, we quickly learn that their circumstances do not warrant it admiration, as their traits twist and progressively worsen. Their Uncle Julian’s deterioration is the only true sign that time passes, and Merricat believes she must be nicer to him so that their lives can remain the same.
In the end, the two sisters become stranded, forever alone in the recesses of a wrecked castle, much like princesses in a fairy tale who have been trapped by a wicked curse, avoidance. Time never seems to pass for them, because they refuse to believe that it can touch them. Their final act of destruction occurs when the two sisters begin to experience empathy, sorrow and find a question of forgiveness by a town that has so long also fallen under the spell of avoidance and allowed themselves to become animals of destruction and hate, and all the sisters do is eat their pie and tidy up.
This book, although not about ghosts, ghouls, or anything paranormal, is an unsettling tale that spells out the true danger of skirting action and confrontation. If you never face anything, you remain exactly where you are, rooted to the spot, allowing the world to move and progress as you shrink. Jackson gives us the alternative, in the cursed townspeople’s apology hams, recognize where you are, and strive for better.