Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tuesday Book Review - We Have Always Lived in the Castle

If you've never read Shirley Jackson I can only shake my head at the failures of a generation of high school literature classes. Sadly most only know her from her short story 'The Lottery' which is a fine piece of work about how a community can carry on doing things they've always done, even when the purpose or impulse or need has long since passed; but only scratches the surface of her literary genius.

Shirley Jackson may not be the chair of the disturbed psyche department, but she's certainly a chief curator of the museum of internal traumas.

Trying to describe this work is like trying to explain a magic trick, without telling you how it ends. How precisely would you describe a man being sawed in half without actually saying ' . . . . and then he was cut in two!' ?

Constance and Merricat and their dear Uncle Julian live a life of quiet routine in their grand home - a home not far from town, but a world away from those people. Of course, their routines are each deeply personal, as if they're not living in the same house: Uncle Julian keeps a catalog of all the events of the last day before their new routines began; Constance keeps house, cooks the meals and behaves equally as servant and Lady, and Merricat won't go to the library on the wrong day lest the magic of her routine be shattered.

Life's chugging happily along for all involved until Cousin Charles arrives and takes up place in 'Father's Room' - an offense to the natural order of things that sends the household reeling into uncertainty. As far as Merricat's concerned the only things worse than his presence in the home are the changes in Uncle Julian, who hates the young interloper, and Constance, who's starting to wonder if there's room in her routine for life outside of this house.

Then it all goes to hell in a handbag, or a wastepaper basket more specifically.
Unfortunately (or fortunately when you realize all the little ways she herself was tortured) I'm not Shirley Jackson and I haven't yet figured out a way to tell the story without telling the story. There's tragedy and destruction and those people come and suddenly it's all spun out of control. When it's all over a new routine begins and you are left wondering if it's not the swan song of the human spirit - or if your own routines aren't a little mad.

All I can suggest is that you head out to your library for a copy or pick one up here.

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