Leafin’ Through: Books for autumn, part 2 – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

On Friday, I posted part 1 of my Leafin’ Through articles. On a mission to supply you with new reading material for autumn, I’m back with my second choice – and we’re going from one England to another one in a trip across the pond.

This time, your reading music is a little bit different. Purely instrumental, one of Nicholas Hooper’s finest contributions to the Potter saga, I think you might find the eerie edge of this perfectly suited to the next book choice.


Second Leafin’ Through choice: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson.

This is an odd fish in many different ways. Castle‘s popularity apparently seems to have been fairly constant, with occasional surges among bloggers of a certain age. I myself came to it a couple of months ago when an Amazon review of Florence and Giles (worth a read by itself) compared Harding’s storyline to Jackson’s. Having read it, I can see why Castle remains a constant.

Merricat, Constance and Uncle Julian are a reclusive set of oddballs, holed up in a large house and overshadowed by the murder of their family members. Constance was acquitted of the deed, but the gossip continues. The ensuing events are narrated by younger sister Merricat, who is what I might call sweetly nuts. This might be an obvious statement, but the book isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – gloomy, with a relentless sense of insanity simmering underneath. So why am I attempting to persuade you to read it?

Well, its tone and images suit the cooling temperature perfectly. There is an obsession with home cooking; in particular, a dish of blackberries is a recurring motif and vital plot point. Constance’s kitchen is a haven, away from the spite of the townsfolk and filled with  warmth and taste. Obviously, there is another edge to this blade: Constance remains unmarried, catering to the disabled Julian and essentially trapped. Her domesticity is at once a contrast to the murders she was accused of and a depressing kowtow to status and gender. But since the book is told through Merricat’s voice, you inevitably feel comforted by Constance’s work, if only for the first half of the book.

Aside from being a staple of American gothic, the story handles subjects which, put frankly, are  fascinating. This is a book in which sight and perception – and indeed not looking, and incorrect perception – run rife. The townspeople think they know more than they do; their stares follow Merricat to the general store and back again. Merricat herself imagines the whisperers as dead, and herself as queen of the moon. The element of mental illness snakes through the prose: Merricat lives by hopping from ritual to ritual, Julian misremembers the day of the deaths over and over obsessively, and it is very probable that Constance is agoraphobic.

Yet the book carries a strangely triumphant pennant. The sisters’ love for one another is the one thing that remains constant throughout the book and its events. Their relationship foibles, and they themselves, are odd but ultimately heartwarming. Indeed, Merricat won herself a place on a Book magazine list entitled, “100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900“.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is to be enjoyed with a large pot of tea in front of an open fire if possible and – if you’re feeling brave – a well-sugared bowl of ripe autumn blackberries.

Get your paperback copy on Amazon UK for £6.29, or download to your Kindle for £6.99, here.


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Fictavia (noun): writer, critiquer of the publishing world and witty reviewer.

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