Friday, July 20, 2012

14. We Have Always Lived in the Castle


By Shirley Jackson

Wow, Shirley Jackson sure knew how to write a good, proper story.  

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the last book Jackson published before she died (somewhat tragically) three years later in 1965. And what a haunting, mesmerizing book it was… and it sat unread on my shelf forgotten all these years! The only reason I remembered it was because Olman had recently asked if I have a copy of The Haunting of Hill House. So I went to check and discovered that I did have it, along with WHALitC!

When I opened the jacket, I found an inscription addressed to yours truly from an old friend I once knew in university. We were roommates for years in a wonderfully decrepit old house (not quite like a Shirley Jackson house, but close) but eventually had a falling out. I guess I must have shelved our friendship like I did her gift!

It’s just as well. I don’t think I would’ve appreciated WHALitC as much back then. It’s not like the novel is that complex; in fact, it’s deceptively simple and short, as it could even pass for a novella. Most of you probably read the short story ‘The Lottery’ at school, and/or already familiar with The Haunting of Hill House. So you’ll see that a variation of Jackson’s well-known themes can be found in WHALitC, ie. female characters who do not conform to societal norms, who end up being persecuted by an ignorant mob.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, who via her internal dialogue, straight away seems like an unusual teenager. More childlike than her 18 years, it’s unclear whether Merricat is eccentric by nature or from the result of living in isolation during her formative years. Six years ago, the Blackwood family was poisoned with arsenic during a family dinner,the only survivors being Merricat, her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian. Constance was charged with the murder, then acquitted due to lack of evidence, and ever since, the three survivors have lived in the Blackwood mansion, shunned by the other villagers.

Twice a week, Merricat’s duty is to walk over to the village for supplies and every time, she is wary of the villagers, and for good reason, as they regard the Blackwoods with contemptuous curiosity and trepidation. To protect herself, Merricat concocts mental rituals which helps her to endure the scrutinizing eyes of the villagers. When Merricat is at home, she has a daily routine of walking the perimeter of the Blackwood property, checking her various magical safeguards are safely buried or still intact, since Merricat believes they protect her home from external harm. These talismans include things like her father’s notebook strategically nailed to a tree, or a box of silver coins buried by the riverbank.

Having read The Wasp Factory last year, I wonder if Iain Banks was influenced at all by Merricat Blackwood when he created the character of Frank Cauldhame (you’ll have to read both books to see what I mean). It wouldn’t surprise me since since Mary Katherine Blackwood is listed as No. 71 in NPR’s 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900.

Part of the appeal of the book is the way the author draws you into Merricat’s thought processes. There is a dreamy rhythm that lulls you into the narrative. Jackson proves you don’t need to write a long, complicated novel to make a lasting impression or explore interesting themes. I don’t want to write any further since it will reveal too much anyway. You should just check out her work (which I should’ve done years ago!).

Here is a nice review which gives just praise to both author and novel:

Shirley Jackson was born in California, but lived in Vermont. In her six novels you can see her working her way into the New England Gothic tradition, creating more and more convincingly a world that is both magical and contemporary. And she has the sharpest eye for evil of any writer I can think of. For Jackson, it doesn't come as buckets of blood and torture porn and it never comes unmixed; there are no monsters in her work. There is evil in the Castle, but there is also charm, humour and a particularly touching portrayal of sisterly love. And there is evil outside the Castle, too, in the villagers' hatred - understandable in its origin but always ready to go out of control. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems to have inspired intriguing yet creepy book cover designs over the years. Here are a few I came across in my internet perusal:


P.S.  This is also the first book I finished while commuting by bus & metro to work.  I stopped riding my bike a few weeks ago due to my expanding pregnant belly, and have figured out that taking the mellow No.55 bus down St-Urbain down to metro Place d'Armes makes for good reading time.





Sunday, July 01, 2012

13. South of the Border, West of the Sun

By Haruki Murakami

Used copies by Haruki Murakami are usually hard to find in my limited experience, but Eureka Books in California had quite a few of them. Sadly, most of them were a bit dog-eared, so I only ended up getting South of the Border, West of the Sun, which was published just before The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

This is only the third Murakami book I’ve read, so I was surprised at how there was little or no magic realism in this novel, but it has many of other Murakami tropes, such as themes of alienation and loneliness. And fleetingly transcending those afflictions by bonding with others through the love of books and music and cats.

The Complete Review site summarized the novel as a “thoughtful and nostalgic Japanese midlife crisis novel”, which I thought was funny because I was thinking how very emo SotBWotS was while I was reading it.

The male narrator, Hajime (another obvious stand-in for the author), was always a bit of an outsider growing up because of him being an only child (a rare occurrence in post-war Japan).  Now a successful owner of two jazz bars, he becomes involved with his old flame, Shimamoto, an enigmatic, beautiful woman who suddenly reappears in his adult life, at a point where he’s "happily" married with children. There are lots of listening to classic music, especially in the form of LP records and melancholic introspection throughout the course of the novel. There are also hints of surrealism because it’s ambiguous whether Shimamoto is a real person, or a figment of Hajime’s imagination, conjured up to fulfill his deepest yearnings to escape the trappings of his middle-aged life. My bet is that Shimamoto is imaginary because no real woman would want to just lick (and only lick) Hajime all over his body (especially his balls) when they first get it on together!

I’m not really doing the novel much justice with my tongue in cheek rundown.  Even though the story is not exactly my cup of tea, I still enjoyed reading it. Murakami has a introspective writing style that is very compelling, so no surprise he is such a popular writer. SotBWofS is interesting because Murakami gives his own deft, subtle spin on the very clich├ęd story of a soul mate lost and then found again, and how losing a loved one can make you hurt and/or betray yourself and/or others. It’s just not one of my favourite Murakami novels, so I'm not too concerned about spending too much effort writing a review on it.

So instead, here is a thoughtful review from Writer on Writer which sums up more articulately how I felt about the book.