Another reason to not add sugar to your fruit – “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

February 5, 2012 at 7:20 pm Leave a comment

We Have Always Lived in the Castleby Shirley Jackson, Published in 1962

This is a short read and a good one. It has just the right mix of creepy and interesting characters to pull the reader in.  And it is the kind of book you want to discuss with other people who have read it because it leaves the reader with a lot of questions.

The novella is told in the first person by Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) and begins like this:

“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 like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

And with that last sentence, a shiver ran down my spine.  After this introduction, the reader quickly finds out that Constance and Merricat live out-of-the-way in a beautiful old house with their Uncle Julian.  Six years before Merricat’s entire family sat down to dinner while she had been sent to bed without any supper.  The family had berries for dessert and everyone, except Constance, added sugar to their berries. It was later discovered that someone had been replaced the sugar with arsenic.

Everyone in the family who eats the sugar dies except Uncle Julian who instead because chronically ill and can no longer walk.  Constance was arrested and tried for the murders but was acquitted. Since that time, the remaining three have lived isolated  with only an occasional visit from the kinder people  from the village.  The other villagers are mean to the family and when Merricat must go into town for provisions she is scoffed at and treated cruelly.

Jackson gives the reader snippets of what happened six years before with reporters and the trial but mostly focuses the story on the present state of the family.  She delves into what can happen to an isolated family and how even the most mundane rituals  can become bizarre and creepy.  In some ways it reminded me a lot of the documentary “Grey Gardens”  – which is a good thing.  Jackson’s story turns when their cousin Charles comes to the house one day, shattering the safety bubble that Constance and Merricat have been living in.

I think Jackson does an amazing of job of examining how society alienates the family of people who have committed horrific crimes. According to the villagers, Merricat is really just a victim of the crime that Constance committed but they are still alarming cruel to her.  It is a strange way we as a society behave.  It was timely that after reading this book I came across a story along these lines in today’s New York Times entitled “Killers’ Families Left to Confront Fear and Shame.”  Apparently Jackson’s writing is as poignant as ever and that is a sign of a great writer.


Entry filed under: February 2012. Tags: , , .

Sometimes art and love is all we have left – “The Lost Wife” by Alyson Richman I freely admit to being a wimp – “Midwives” by Chris Bohjalian

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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