A kind of cynical fairytale, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle follows a pair of hermitic sisters as they fend off unwelcome intruders from overtaking their family estate.
A strange tale about two social outcasts, We Have Always Lived in the Castle follows a pair of wealthy orphaned sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, as they try to defend themselves and their family estate from hostile villagers and a scheming cousin. Six years prior to the start of the story, the sisters’ other family members were inexplicably poisoned with arsenic as they ate breakfast. All the village suspected Constance, and ever since the sisters have lived cloistered inside their house on the outskirts of town, with only their senile uncle for company. The first few chapters introduce readers to the gothic setting, but the plot picks up speed when a brash cousin named Charles arrives, looking to outwit the sisters and steal their fortune.
The story is told from the perspective of the 18-year-old Merricat, who routinely indulges in murderous fantasies and wishes to punish anyone who accuses Constance of having killed the rest of their family. Much of the novel consists of Merricat playing mean-spirited and vicious tricks on Charles, in an attempt to expel him from the house; only in the final chapters does a series of sensational twists inject drama and tension into the story. The uniqueness of Merricat’s voice, at once venomous and droll, makes the novel worth reading, in spite of its jerky pace and underdeveloped plot.
Jackson’s prose is as entrancing as ever. Sprawling descriptions of the New England landscape intermix with Merricat’s acerbic observations about other characters, while a sense of paranoia and dread pervades the entire novel. The perplexing ending resolves very little, and is sure to linger in readers’ minds.
The audiobook, narrated by by Bernadette Dunne, is wonderful: Dunne captures the unsettling way Merricat’s voice blend vulnerability with sadism. A little under six hours, the book easily can be listened to over the course of a few sittings.