The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

While The Factory shares many similarities with The Hole, it lacked the eerie atmosphere that made the latter into such a beguiling read. The Factory switches between three 1st povs, without specifying who is narrating (we usually can guess by the job they do). They all work at ‘the factory, an industrial factory located in an unnamed city that size-wise is close to Disneyland. The factory has a large influence on the city’s inhabitants, kids and adults alike go on field trips there in order to learn more about its inner-workings, and parents are keen for their children to have careers there. One of our narrators is employed to study moss, another shreds paper, and the third is a proofreader. Throughout the course of this novel, the author highlights the nonsensical rules and tasks that characterize modern working environments. Many of the conversations they have with their colleagues verge on the absurd, and much of what happens in their daily working lives will strike us as peculiar. Two years ago I was a temp worker at this company that processed donations and lottery tickets for charities and it made for a very strange working experience. They had bizarre regulations and often gave us temp workers the most random jobs.
This is not the first book that I’ve read that satirizes the gig economy. The Factory wasn’t quite as inventive and engaging as say Temporary. Also, the use of multiple narrators resulted in a less focused storyline. Whether this was intentional or not, I found myself wishing for a more introspective read. The characters populating this book are half-formed caricatures that didn’t quite succeed in capturing a certain type of person/worker. Still, The Factory does read like a contemporary Kafkaesque tale. There is an interview scene very early on in the narrative that felt really spot-on.
While this wasn’t as quite a memorable read as The Hole it does make for a weird and fairly humorous read.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

People From My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami

The extremely short stories collected in People From My Neighbourhood bear many of the trademarks that I associate with Hiromi Kawakami’s storytelling and work. Under Kawakami’s hand, slice-of-life scenarios are approached from odd angles and permeated by a sense of surreality that will make readers question what exactly is going.

As the title itself suggests this collection transports readers to a Japanese neighbourhood and each story reads like a short vignette detailing an odd episode involving a resident of this neighbourhood. The stories are loosely interconnected as we have recurring figures—such as Kanae and her sisters or the school principal—who make more than one appearance. Occasionally one is even left with the impression that they vaguely contradict one another, or that time doesn’t quite unfold as it should in this neighbourhood. This elasticity with time and reality results in a rather playful collection that is recognizably a product of Kawakami’s active imagination. Her offbeat approach to everyday scenarios does make for an inventive collection of stories. There is a story about the unusual lottery that takes place in this neighbourhood (the loser has to take care of Hachirō, a boy with a voracious and seemingly never-ending appetite), one about the bitter rivalry between two girls named Yōko, one about a princess moving to the neighbourhood, another recounting the origin of the Sand Festival, and many detailing people who are curses or are part of some sort of prophecy.

While I love Kawakami’s storytelling, which is full of zest and humour, as well as the almost Kafkaesque feeling of her narratives, I just found these stories too short and, ultimately, insubstantial. If she happens to be an author on your TBR pile I suggest you pick one of her novels instead, like, Strange Weather in Tokyo or The Nakano Thrift Shop.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

“A library at night is full of sounds: The unread books can’t stand it any longer and announce their contents, some boasting, some shy, some devious.”

Confusion galore! What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a relentlessly inventive and delightfully playful collection of interlocked short stories. These intentionally bewildering fabulist stories are inhabited by off-kilter characters who find themselves in increasingly fantastical scenarios. Magical keys, doors, puppets, and houses populate their lives, and Oyeyemi treats these elements with little fanfare. While readers will find her characters’ circumstances and misadventures to be bizarre to the extreme, they seem relatively nonplussed by how weird and absurd their lives are. While I loved that these stories celebrated books and creativity, and I found the quirky dialogues and character responses to be amusing, I did have a hard time figuring out what the hell was happening. The stories begin with little ceremony, plunging straight into bizarroland. It isn’t often clear where or when we are but we are made to accept these stories offbeat premises. Rather than having straightforward plotlines, these stories seem to be composed of eccentric vignettes that aren’t going in any particular direction. The stories seem to end randomly, providing no real closure or insight into whatever these characters were going through.
leaving me feeling rather The carnivalesque elements embedded in these narratives brought to mind la commedia dell’arte (i believe pulcinella gets a mention). These stories are so profoundly perplexing that I struggled to follow whatever was happening. While I’m sure this was intentional, it did work against my being able to feel involved in whatever was going on. Still, I did appreciate Oyeyemi’s British humor. I also loved how casually queer these stories are.
If you are a fan of absurdist tales, this may be a collection worth checking out.

my rating: ★★★

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Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki

Perhaps I should be more lenient towards these stories as they were written in the 1970s but alas I did find them rather dated.
Most of these stories are set in near-futures. The first portrays an all-female society in which men are seen as less than human. Other stories present readers with different shades of bleak realities in which characters struggle or refuse to assimilate with their less than perfect ‘utopias’. These stories have a surreal quality to them, one that did bring to mind Kafka, but more often than not they were a tad on the nose. They were very counterculture, almost predictably so. While there was the odd moment of humor here and there (such as a talking chair or a character proclaiming that they are done with gender) these stories tried too hard to be grungy.
Everyone seems to be alienated or in the midst of an existential crisis and their observations and reflections struck me as mere navel-gazing (things on the lines of ‘what is the point in life?’).

Lastly, here feel free to call me ‘woke’ or whatnot, I did not care for the way masculine women were described. While I appreciate that many of the women in these stories expressed a certain dissatisfaction towards rigid gender binaries and heteronormativity, I was not a fan of how women who exhibit behavioural and physical traits that are traditionally associated with men are described as disgusting and or as abject. In the first story, the protagonist critiques the fact that her all-female queer utopia draws on male/female patriarchal dynamics (so that within f/f couples one woman takes on a traditionally ‘male’ role, while the other one takes ‘female’ roles) which I did at first sort of appreciate but then she goes on to slag off women who appear more masculine (she is repulsed by the sight of a woman with facial hair or by the idea of a woman taking male hormones to be more masculine).

Maybe these stories will appeal more to those who feel some sort of nostalgia for the 1970s counterculture but I for one found them too dusty for my liking. The author’s storytelling is dry, the dialogues are repetitive, and the ideas/scenarios explored by each narrative came across as samey and unimaginative.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Picnic in the Storm by Yukiko Motoya

Picnic in the Storm, also published as The Lonesome Bodybuilder, is a collection of 11 extremely weird tales. Yukiko Motoya imbues mundane settings with a sense of the surreal so that even a story about a saleswoman at a clothing shop who is trying to assist a customer who won’t come out of their changing room ends is far from ordinary. My first story in the collection, which happens to be my favorite, is called ‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’ and follows a woman who decides to go to the gym in order to attain a bodybuilder type of physique. Her trainer warns her that bodybuilders are often misunderstood by their society but our narrator finds that her colleagues are extremely supportive. Her husband, on the other hand, does not seem to notice her, regardless of how big she gets. This story had a whimsical tone that worked really well with its subject matter.
Most of the other stories, however, were not as vibrant as this first one. Some of them were so short and similar that they ended up blurring together in my mind.

The longest story, which takes up nearly half of the collection, was a great combination of playful and grotesque. A newlywed woman becomes aware that some married women end up morphing into their spouses, their features, and mannerisms engulfed by their husband’s ones. I liked the subtle yet uneasy atmosphere in this story and the uncanny feeling it produced.

Most of these stories are dictated by an absurd logic, ordinary characters and their environments often morph into unfamiliar shapes, and Motoya succeeds in blending magical and realistic elements together. Many of the fantastical elements work as a metpahor for her to address a certain subject, and there seems to be a focus on married life. In spite of this, some of the stories were ultimately forgettable. One was rather gross, involving incest, and did not really add anything to the collection.
Still, I would happily read more by this author as this collection showcases both her inventiveness and playful style, which is exceedingly readable.

my rating: ★★★☆☆


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Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories by Kevin Wilson

A very Wilsonesque collection of stories: dysfunctional families, spontaneous human combustion, surreal scenarios, and plenty of eccentric characters. Each story in this collection held my attention, and while they share similarities, they also showcase Wilson’s range: from lighthearted tales (such as “Grand Stand-In” and “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth”) to more bittersweet stories (such as “Birds in the House”) and even ones that I can best describe as heartbreaking (“Mortal Kombat”).
Regardless of their tone, each story is permeated by surrealism. At times the surreal elements are overt (such as with the first story in this collection), while in other times they are more covert. Ordinary moments or exchanges are injected with a dose of the bizarre, and this weirdness was a delight to read. Wilson vividly renders his characters and their experiences (however unreal they were), and his mumblecore dialogues always rang true to life (even when the discussions veered in seemingly absurd territories).
This was a wonderful collection of short stories. They were extremely amusing and always surprising. Each story had a certain focus, and didn’t meander in other directions, seeming committed to expanding on specific feelings or ideas. My favourite ones were “Mortal Kombat” (as sad as it was), “Birds in the House”, and “The Museum of Whatnot”.
Funny, original, and tender, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is a marvellous collection of stories, one that I would thoroughly recommend it to readers who enjoyed other works by Wilson, such as Nothing to See Here.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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The Sundial by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“I mean, why should I figure I’m so special, the world is going to end while I’m around?”

In The Sundial, perhaps Shirley Jackson’s most comical novel, twelve rather disagreeable individuals are cooped together in a mansion waiting for the end of the world.

“The house would be guarded during the night of destruction and at its end they would emerge safe and pure. They were charged with the future of humanity; when they came forth from the house it would be into a world clean and silent, their inheritance.”

When Aunt Fanny, a rather ditsy spinster whose passive aggressive martyr act brought to mind E. M. Forster’s Miss Bartlett, is threatened out of her family home by her megalomaniac sister-in-law, she is quite rightfully distressed. Lucky for Aunt Fanny, on that very same day she happens to hear the disembodied voice of her deceased father. He warns Aunt Fanny of an impending apocalypse, and tells her not to leave the Halloran estate: “Tell them in the house that they will be saved. Do not let them leave the house.”
When Aunt Fanny reports her father’s warning, her brother’s wife, Orianna, although not entirely convinced, decides that if there is to be a new world, she wants in. More people join their ranks, some by chance, such as Orianna’s friend and her two daughters, while others, such as a random stranger, are more or less coerced into remaining.
Aunt Fanny is perhaps the only character who actively tries to prepare for ‘life’ after doomsday: she buys a Boy Scout handbook and other books that have “practical information on primitive living”, as well as stocking up the house with food and other essentials (her bulk-buying puts to shame today’s panic buyers). In the meantime the solipsistic and conniving Orianna ensures her authority, punishing those who dare to defy her and her rules.

The Sundial offers its readers some brilliantly absurd scenes. For instance, when Aunt Fanny picks up a stranger in the village and decides to name him “Captain Scarabombardon”, or when the residents of Halloran house come into contact with the True Believers. The dialogues in this novel demonstrate Jackson’s wicked sense of humour, as she’s unafraid of ridiculing her own characters.
Make no mistake though, this darkly comedic novel has its disturbing moments, and a sense of unease pervades much of the narrative.

In some ways this novel is decidedly Jackson-esque. First of all, we have the setting:

“The character of the house is perhaps of interest. It stood upon a small rise in ground, and all the land it surveyed belonged to the Halloran family. The Halloran land was distinguished from the rest of the world by a stone wall, which went completely around the estate, so that all inside the wall was Halloran, all outside was not.”

This is yet another novel by Jackson explores the double function of houses: the Halloran mansion is both a fortress—a place of safety—and a prison.
We also have tensions between an aristocratic family and the ‘small minded’ villagers (who are often described as belonging to an inferior species), toxic and possibly murderous relatives, creepy young girls (who are far more perceptive than others think), and mind-wandering wheelchair bound old men.

Jackson’s writing is as clever as always. Not a word is out of place. From her scintillating descriptions (“a lady of indeterminate shape, but vigorous presence,”) to the careful yet impactful way in which she arranges her phrases. And of course, her dialogues are a pure delight to read:

“Humanity, as an experiment, has failed.”
“Well, I’m sure I did the best I could,” Maryjane said.
“Do you understand that this world will be destroyed? Soon?”
“I just couldn’t care less,” Maryjane said.

This being a novel by Jackson, most of the characters hate other people and the rest of the world. Aunt Fanny’s ‘prophecy’ gives them the possibility of entertaining a future in which they are different. Yet, they are so occupied with their future as to completely ignore the people around them, so that meaningful heart-to-hearts inevitably fail.

“But there aren’t any good people,” Gloria said helplessly. “No one is anything but tired and ugly and mean.”

The ambiguous nature of Jackson’s story and her characters may not appeal to those who dislike when things happen off-stage. Personally, I love that Jackson doesn’t always provide answers to the mysteries within her stories.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of Jackson, or to those are interested in a satirical ‘pre-doomsday’ story populated by an Addams type of family.

Some of my favourite quotes:

“Now, she thought; I may go mad, but at least I look like a lady.”

“You, sir,” the man said, addressing Essex. “Do you atone?”
“Daily,” said Essex.
“Sin?”
“When I can,” said Essex manfully.”

“I will not have space ships landing on my lawn. Those people are perfectly capable of sending their saucers just anywhere, with no respect for private property.”

“Can you cook?”
“Admirably.”
“You would have to cook poorly, to meet my ideal. I want the kind of dismal future only possible in this world. ”

“I personally deplore this evidence of frayed nerves; we do not have much longer to wait, after all, and perhaps if we cannot contain ourselves we had better remain decently apart.”

“If my lunacy takes the form of desiring to wear a crown, will you deny me? May I not look foolish in tolerant peace? ”

“There’s no denying, for instance, that my clever Julia is a fool and my lovely Arabella is a—”
“Flirt,” Mrs. Halloran said.
“Well, I was going to say tart, but it’s your house, after all.”

“We must try to think of ourselves,” Mrs. Halloran went on, “as absolutely isolated. We are on a tiny island in a raging sea; we are a point of safety in a world of ruin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Temporary by Hilary Leichter — book review

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“The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break.”

Temporary is a wonderfully bizarre novel. Readers who prefer to read stories that are grounded in reality or that are ruled by logic and reason may be better off steering clear from the sheer absurdity that is Temporary.

“She noted the fallacy of permanence in a world where everything ends and desired that kind of permanence all the same.”

Within this novel Hilary Leichter takes to the extreme the role of a temporary worker and the world which she writes of only vaguely resemble our own. In her hyperbolic vision of a capitalistic society generations of temporaries spend their lives in pursuit of ‘the steadiness’ (gainful employment/permanency) The temporary positions which one can be assigned to have a Kafkaesque quality to them: opening and closing doors in a house, filling in for a parrot on a pirate ship, assisting a murderer, working as a body scanner that detects emotion, pushing random buttons…each temporary role is dictated by arbitrary rules and nonsensical tasks, or characterised by confounding hierarchies and even sexual harassment.
The narrator, like her mother and her grandmother before her, goes from temporary position to temporary position with an upbeat can-do attitude. To ‘work’, to do her job, is everything to her, regardless of what the job actually entails. She has several boyfriends, whom she distinguishes by referring to their physical attributes, such as ‘the tall boyfriend’, or their profession, such as ‘the culinary boyfriend, rather than their names.

Throughout the course of the narrative the narrator finds herself doing increasingly outlandish gigs.
The story is ridiculous, and so are the characters and their interactions. But it is also hilariously absurd. Having worked as a temp, and being too aware of the way in which temporary workers are often regarded as little more than disposable cutlery, I deeply enjoyed Leichter’s critique of modern society, particularly the gig economy.

The effervescent writing style brought to mind novels by Japanese authors such as Yōko Ogawa, Sayaka Murata, and Hiromi Kawakami while the protagonist’s fanciful narration, as well as the peculiar people she encounters, echoed Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Temporary is just endearingly unapologetic in its weirdness.

“We drink some water side by side, our bodies full of fluids, of blood and acid and methods of hydration, caffeination, intoxication.”

Through addition of purply metaphors, frequent rapid-firing of words (so that phrases seem to have been breathlessly blurted out), and ping-pong dialogues, Leichter’s magnifies the weird atmosphere of her story.

“What were you thinking?”
“I was just thinking differently.”
“Who said you get to think differently?”
“No one.”

Underneath this novel’s layer of surreality lies an all too relevant tale. Clever, funny, nonsensical, Leichter’s debut novel is a fable for the modern age.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Apartment by Teddy Wayne — book review

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“I’d been happy before just to be his classmate, to learn from him osmotically, but now I grew excited at what this might blossom into, the sort of close, symbiotic relationship I’d hoped grad school would offer and the Hemingway-Fitzgerald complementary pairing I’d always thought necessary to one’s artistic development.”

Set in New York between 1996 and 1997 Apartment portrays the making and dissolution of a friendship. Our unnamed narrator, who is attending the MFA writing program at Columbia, is a rather introverted young man. His father is paying for his tuition and his other expenses while he is staying in his aunt’s apartment (in what amounts to an illegal sublet).
His loner existence is shaken up when he begins to hang out with Billy, a talented classmate of his. Billy, who hails from the Midwest, has only recently gotten into writing and reading. Unlike our narrator, Billy struggles to make ends meet and works as a bartender. Out of a combination of guilt and genuine admiration for Billy and his writing, our narrator offers him his spare bedroom.

“A first sleepover, whether it was sexual or platonic, had a way of making you both more and less comfortable around the other person; you’d jumped a fence of intimacy, but now you saw each other in the blunt morning light.”

Living in such close quarters however is not easy. The power imbalance between the two of them (which sees the protagonist becoming Billy’s benefactor), their opposite financial situations, as well as Billy’s writing capabilities, put a strain on their bond. Soon it becomes apparent that they also have differing interests and political outlooks.
The unspooling of their relationship is uncomfortable to read. As their awkward chats give way to tense silences, we read with a mounting sense of dread.
The narrator’s discomfort becomes our own. Yet, his caginess puts us at arm’s length. Early on he confesses to Billy that his biggest fear is that no one will truly know him. While this hints at a certain level of self-awareness, our protagonist remains unknowable. His writing too, according to his classmates’ feedback, reflects his reticence to let others see him.
His self-imposed isolation gives way to a perpetual cycle of loneliness and alienation. As he realises that his friendship with Billy is irrevocably damaged, the narrator does the unthinkable.
In spite of the narrator’s unwillingness to articulate his true feelings, I came to care for him. His observations were rendered in a shrinkingly genuine manner, and even if he does not reveal himself to us, or others, we do become familiar with his solitude and with his feelings of not belonging.

“I would never relate to these people after all, they wouldn’t come to know me and no one ever would, and it wasn’t because I was a misunderstood rebel or suffered from some diagnosable pathology; I was an oddball—but not even a ‘classic’ oddball, no, I was an oddball among self-selecting oddballs who had found community with other oddballs, and to be on the outside of mainstream society i one thing, and admirably heroic struggle, but to be on the fringes of an already marginalized subculture is simply lonely.”

With a narrative that is rife with literary allusions and academic terms, Teddy Wayne’s conveys the sheltered yet claustrophobic atmosphere of an MFA program. The narrator and his classmates seem aware that they are active participants in what they define as ‘real life’. Billy’s less than privileged background is what differentiates him from the rest. Yet, the more time he spends at this program, the more self-assured he becomes. There are some great discussions around talent and ambition.
The narrator’s internal monologue also provides some moments of humour. For example, in contemplating a romantic relationship with another writer he makes the following observation:

“Writers were either histrionic or reserved or oscillated wildly between the two poles, all we’d have to talk about would be what we’d composed that day or how we were depressed that we hadn’t produced anything, the whole thing would be insular and incestuous.”

The novel also delves into themes of masculinity, identity, friendship, creativity, and sexuality. Wayne’s depiction of the mid-90s is simultaneously piercing and nostalgic. New York too is rendered in an evocative way.

Written in a propelling style and possessing all the trappings of a psychological thriller without actually being one, Apartment tells a profoundly poignant tale in which the narrator’s namelessness reflects his withdrawn nature.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – book review

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“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”

In recent years Shirley Jackson has experienced a kind of renascence. Perhaps because of Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House or possibly thanks to contemporary authors (such as Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King) who have credited Jackson as their inspiration, enhancing her reputation, and prompting a reappraisal of her work. The fact that the Gothic and Horror genres—long regarded as cheap and sensational—are no longer considered ‘lowbrow’ fiction has also contributed to this reassessment of Jackson’s oeuvre. Modern readers now see Jackson as a central figure of the America Gothic as much of her fiction paints a fascinating—if not disturbing—portrait of postwar America . Yet, I find it difficult to pigeonhole Jackson as a Horror writer. Her narratives often feature emotionally disturbed women who are trapped within Kafkaesque worlds. They reality they presents us with seems off. Jackson seems to magnify the way in which traditions and societal expectations threaten one’s individuality and creativity. Most of her stories follow a woman’s ‘quest’ to find or maintain her identify. The ‘horror’ within Jackson’s stories is experienced by her characters. It is because most of her protagonists are labelled as ‘different’ that they are made vulnerable. Yet, readers will often find that all of Jackson’s characters behave with eccentricity (there are whole towns and communities populated by weird people…a bit a la A Series Of Unfortunate Events). In spite of this our protagonists are still singled out, often because they seem more interested in practicing their personal brand of witchcraft than of engaging with the rest of their world.
Madness and evil pervade Jackson’s writing to the extent that even her depictions of everyday occurrences are riddled with human weaknesses, fears, and cruelties. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle evil takes many forms.

The protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—which happens to be Jackson’s last published novel—has no interest in personal growth. Mary Katherine, who goes by the nickname of Merricat (quite fitting given that she often behaves like her closest companion, a black cat named Jonas), is an untame and defiant tomboy whose apparent ingenuousness hides a razor-alert mind. Six years before the events of the narrative—at the age of twelve—Merricat’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother died after eating sugar laced with arsenic. Constance, Merricat’s older sister, is accused and acquitted of the crime.
Ostracised from their village, Merricat and Constance have become completely estranged from society. At the age of eighteen—free from her parents’ rules—Merricat has fashioned Blackwood Manor into her own private and idyllic world. The two sisters and Uncle Julian—who survived the poisoning but is now wheelchair-bound and increasingly senile—lead a life that is relatively quiet and governed by the daily chores and the ritual of mealtimes. Constance is in charge of the cooking and spends most of her days looking after Uncle Julian and completing household chores with Merricat, whom she treats with loving indulgence, often condoning Merricat’s disturbing behaviour by saying “silly Merricat”. When Constance voices her desire to go outside of the property, Merricat fear of this begins to manifests itself in her surroundings, skewing the way she perceives her reality so that she views ordinary things as ‘omens’ that “spoke of change.” Merricat attempts to regain control of the situation through her witchcraft and by breaking objects but with cousin Charles’ unannounced visit, Merricat is forced to take more drastic approaches to self-preservation.

A third fourth reading of this short and beautifully odd novel has made me even more appreciative of Shirley Jackson’s mastery of words. The first time I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was propelled into an increasingly puzzling yet utterly compelling story. During my second reading, I payed more attention to all of the novel’s components, rather than just getting swept along the bizarrely unapologetic storyline. Each time I re-read this novel, I love it even more. Jackson doesn’t feel the need to explain the surreal reality of her novels which makes readers such as me all the more in awe of her craft. Although it is difficult to draw comparisons, I could describe her style as David Lynch meets Tim Burton. Everything and everyone within this novel is peculiar and most scenes and conservations seem to hold a level of absurdity. Merricat’s narrative is also marked by a sense of growing unease (towards change, the future, anything other than her own version of reality) and the tension created by her various anxieties is alleviated by the story’s dark humour.

There are many different layers to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. One the one hand, it is exactly what its reputation promises it to be: an incredibly eerie and compelling short novel. On the other hand, it also delves into many challenging and unsettling subjects, such as paranoia, persecution and violence. Shirley Jackson does not shy away from portraying the darker corners of human nature, in fact, she delves right into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
On the surface, Merricat’s alienation is debilitating yet a closer look suggests that her estrangement from her society is act of self-preservation, one that is both empowering and subversive, allowing them to defy the societal norms and expectations of their time. Throughout the course of her narrative she attempts—for better or worse—to shape and maintain her own identities, refusing the role thrust upon her by her society. In Jackson’s novels, a world of fantasy is preferable to the ‘real’ world, which is populated by people who perform acts of cruelty, physical brutality and or psychological violence against those they perceive as ‘outsiders’. Merricat, who embodies the feared ‘other’ through her unwillingness, if not outright refusal, to adhere to established social conventions, is the ideal scapegoats of her community.

Merricat’s megalomania shows itself through her desire to exact punishments and for designating things and people as either “good” or “bad”. Her dichotomous view of the world causes her to behave in extremes: she varies between acting like a feral child, a sulky adolescent, and a seemingly Cassandra-like individual. Merricat obeys her childish impulses, and readily resorts to violence when not getting her way. Although Merricat sounds much younger than her eighteen years, her naivety is misleading, and her fantasies can easily move between those of a child (“I really only want a winged horse, anyway. We could fly you to the moon and back, my horse and I”) and those of a far more ruthless and dangerous person.
Her sadistic fantasies, her manipulation and subordination of Constance, and her desire to frighten others (“I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.” ) reveal Merricat’s cunning awareness. Readers might find her charming, yet warped perspective jarring, especially since she avoids explaining her most malevolent deeds.

Merricat’s surreal inner world is conveyed through her first-person narration and readers are granted a unique insight into some of her mental strategies that she uses to feel protected from world around her’. To an outsider like her cousin Charles, many of Merricat’s actions seem to be unwarranted temper tantrums. Readers, on the other hand, know that Merricat always attributes a meaning—however absurd or far-fetched it may appear—to her every action and word. We are aware that she deliberately smashes objects in an effort to regain control over her life.
Merricat’s tendency to let her fantasies dictate her behaviour, turning her imagination into reality, distances herself from the ever-present threat of reality. She attempts to change and control aspects of her life through magical charms and fantasies, with little direct engagement with the outside world. Merricat’s need of control could possibly stems from her ‘fear of change’ which in turn causes her to perceive anything outside her and Constance’s established routine, such as the arrival of uninvited guests, as a threat to their wellbeing. Merricat tries to deflect ‘change’ through her own unique brand of witchcraft, which consists in the performance of various magical rituals, the burying of various ‘safeguards’, unspoken ‘spells’, and even the occasional“‘offering of jewellery out of gratitude”. Merricat draws strength from her belief in magic. What Charles—and presumably the rest of society—would see as childish games, Merricat views as the means to safeguard her future and protect her from the outside.

It is up to Merricat to fashion her home, Blackwood Manor, into a ‘castle’—a stronghold—which she can protect through various magical rituals and wards, and Merricat believes that nothing—and no one—can prevent her from projecting her fantastical and solipsistic view of the world onto her reality.
Shirley Jackson’s style is perfectly attuned to Merricat’s unnerving mind. Her obsessive and impulsive nature is fluidly conveyed by Jackson’s repetitive and rhythmical writing. Jackson also evokes a surrealisms reminiscent of fairy tales through the Merricat’s childlike urges and morbid fascination.
Merricat is a beguiling narrator. Her playful fantasies are juxtaposed against the most violent and bizarre thoughts. Her devotion to her sister borders on the obsessive yet it is through this puzzling relationship that we see a more genuine side to Merricat’s character. In spite of her selfish nature, her palpable fears and unique worldview make her into a fascinating protagonist. Once the stability of the sisters’ purposely reclusive existence is threatened, Merricat survives through her active fantasy. She retreats into the deepest parts of her made-up world. And it is her increasingly desperate attempts to retain control over both Constance’s and her own life that make her into such a brilliant character. Even in those instances where she ‘simply’ observes others, Merricat is always ‘there’, her presence unmissable to the readers.

Her sister Constance also demonstrates worrying behaviour. She too is initially in complete denial over the family’s status. She is in some things, rather controlling, while in other instances, she seemed…on another planet. While Constance remains a cypher of sorts, we see why Merricat needs her.
Uncle Julian ramblings were endearing and his sharp remarks provided much entertainment. Much of the story’s humour springs from his character.
Merricat perceives cousin Charles a threat right from the start. The scenes featuring him are brimming with tension: Merricat’s apprehension is all too real, and I found myself viewing him as an ‘enemy’, just as she does. Merricat’s descriptions of him often present him as something not quite human, a ghost or some such creature. While we can see that some of his criticisms towards Constance and Merricat had some truth, we are always seeing him through Merricat’s eyes.

The underlying suspense, the growing unease, make this uncanny tale hard to put down.The vivid descriptions are simply tantalising, the surreal quality of the characters’ conversations is darkly amusing and the atmospheric setting is almost tangible. We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes for a lush and macabre read, one that will probably strike you as weird yet ultimately compelling. It could be read as a fairy-tale of sorts, an alternative to folklore narratives, or as a story that sets otherness against ‘herd’ mentality.
Recently there has been a film adaptation of this novel (you can watch the trailer for it here) which, in spite of some minor alterations, brings to life Jackson’s story. It conveys the novel’s unapologetic weirdness, its idiosyncrasies, and its black humour. The film Stoker also seems to have drawn inspiration from this novel.
The first page of this novel perfectly encapsulates its style and tone. If you are uncertain whether this is the kind of story for you, I recommend you read its opening paragraph:

“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 dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

edit: I’ve now read this 6 times and I find myself still in love with it. Jackson is a brilliant storyteller and We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a marvel of a book.

My rating: ★★★★★ stars

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illustration by Thomas Ehretsmann