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Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“Dearest dearest darling most important dearest darling Natalie—this is me talking, your own priceless own Natalie.”

Alice in Wonderland meets The Bell Jar.
The first time I read this I felt confused. Although Jackson demonstrates her usual sharp humour and rhythmic writing style, the story seemed far less structured than her other novels.
A second reading however made me much more appreciative of this weird anti-bildungsroman. What I previously thought of as being a confounding narrative with an unclear storyline became a clever take of the three-acts typical of a monomyth: the story begins with Natalie ‘departing’ from her home, she is ‘initiated’ in college, and after a particularly illusive confrontation in a forest she ‘returns’ to her campus with the realisation that “as she had never been before, she was now alone, and grown-up, and powerful, and not at all afraid”.
Natalie’s alienation has an almost alienating effect. Bored by her life, she often looses herself in her imagination. When her parents are bickering she entertains an imaginary conversation with a detective who accuses her of murdering her lover. Natalie is both afraid and excited by this scenario, finding a strange sort of pleasure in the possibility of being a murderer.
When her parents host a garden party her fantastical narratives take an even weirder turn, and she seems—or pretends to be—unaware that what occurs is a product of her imagination, so much so that the first time I read this scene I believed that what was happening was real.
Natalie is quite happy to leave her home (which is made oppressive by her pompous father and depressed mother) to go to college. However, her ‘unformed’ personality soon causes her to dissociate from her surroundings. Amidst the other girls she struggles to define herself. Fearing that she is ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ Natalie rejects her peers and finds solace in a girl called Tony.
Throughout the story Natalie looses herself in her elaborate narratives, where she can take whatever role she pleases, and most importantly, where she is able to distinguishing herself from others. Her visions of grandeur provide many amusing moments that reveal just how desperate Natalie is to be recognised for her unique personality. The novel seems to chronicle, however unclearly, her attempts to find and fit a ‘self’ that is unlike those of others.

‘“My name is Natalie Waite.” Is it my name? She wondered then, afraid for a minute that she had appropriated the name of the next girl.’

However challenging this novel might be it is a truly remarkable work. Although Natalie’s ‘journey’ into adulthood is shrouded in ambivalence, there are many scenes which showcase Jackson’s wit . If you are looking for an unreliable protagonist, look no further.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

Read more reviews on my blog or View all my reviews on Goodreads

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