Family can support, and family can destroy.  Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Live in the Castle is a bleak and haunting look at an insular family haunted by their past and threatened by change.

This novel is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood.  She lives alone with her older sister Constance and their wheelchair-bound, forgetful Uncle Julian.  Mary Katherine is fearful of the her neighbors in the town ("the people of the village have always hated us") and resentful that a home that she believes was supposed to go them was taken by someone else.  Mary Katherine only goes in to town for food, avoids everyone as much as possible, and "protects" the Blackwood home by burying and nailing up items in the home and fields.  Her only non-family friend is a black cat named Jonas.

The Blackwood family is famous and infamous because, six years earlier, most of the family were killed by arsenic and their dinner.  Mary Katherine certainly wishes people dead all the time, but she was in her room when it happened.  Constance seemed a likely suspect -- she knows all about poisons and washed out the sugar bowl that was suspected to hold the arsenic -- but she was found not guilty at trial.  Little kids taunt Mary Katherine by singing about it ("Merricat,  said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?  Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me") and Uncle Julian keeps copious notes about the night while trying to remember if it ever happened.  (His ailments seem to have come from the poisoning.)

Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian have their routines, traditions, and life each other.  That all changed with the arrival of Cousin Charles.  This family member is not part of their traditions and seems only interested in the Blackwood's money.  But the antagonism between him and Mary Katherine is almost immediate, and their words soon lead to threats and actions...

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quietly horrific tale of madness and tradition.  Like Jackson's story "The Lottery," this novel looks at holding on to, or creating, routines as a way to cope even if they have no real use or power.  Jackson's prose is slow and steady, bringing us into Mary Katherine's child-like universe of three family members against the world while letting us see her paranoia and hatred.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quiet yet powerful story with strong parallels to the Lizzie Borden scandal and the fears of would-be aristocrats fearful of everyone else.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

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