A Few Comments on Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE

We_Have-Always_Lived_In-CastleI went seeking feral spinsters in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women when they were denizens of Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle. I was agog reading Jackson’s novel: what was this combination of nightmarish cozy domesticity, thrilling misandry and misanthropy, allegory of sin and propitiation? The story of two sisters living in isolation in their “castle”, a mansion in the Vermont? woods, one of them had been on trial for their family’s murders and the other had committed the crime. They live with their doddering, elderly Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, spending his time pouring over notes about the family tragedy in hopes he can make sense of events. The girls (for girls they are and girls they remain no matter their ages), 28-year-old Constance and 18-year-old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood live lives of careful routine: Merricat ventures into town, on designated days, to exchange library books and pick up groceries. She is hounded, harrassed, and ridiculed by the townspeople. Constance tends her garden, preserves its produce in pickles, sauces, jams, etc., and cooks three gourmet meals a day, also baking cookies and cakes. Constance is a parody of domesticity. Their lives, at first, are eccentric, but evolve to surreal by the novel’s conclusion. As I read Castle, I was struck by its brilliance and how difficult it was to penetrate its claustrophic nightmare: one part domestic life parody and three parts weird. (Without meaning to, I’ve read two short, dense novels, penned by two very different writers, about sisters and households. Huh.) 
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A Few Comments on Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING

HousekeepingI find it difficult to read a book when I can’t discern the author’s purpose in the writing of it. Reading Robinson’s Housekeeping was reading “through a glass darkly.” It wasn’t so much that it was “purposeless”. I never had that sense, but only of my own reading failure. At times, I glimpsed a phrase of such piercing brilliance that I’d gasp and then it would elude me again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read literary fiction and it was hard going, especially with prose as dense and elusive as this. I admired it, but I didn’t enjoy it. Like most litfic, there isn’t much plot. Two sisters, Ruthie (really more the main character) and Lucille are left in the town of Fingerbone (creepy name, memento mori-ish) by their mother, who drives her borrowed car over Fingerbone’s bridge and into its lake. The girls are raised by their grandmother, then by their grandmother’s two sisters-in-law, then by their eccentric, dream-ridden maternal aunt, Sylvie. Much of what I have to say will consist of what the novel is not rather than what it is. It’s not a coming-of-age narrative. (You can’t really spoil a novel without much plot, but be warned, I’m not careful about discussing whatever struck me in what follows.)  Continue reading