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The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas — book reviews

7190.jpgWhile I understand historical context and I am quite able to appreciate classics without wanting them to reflect ‘modern’ sensibilities, I have 0 patience for books that glorify rapists.

SPOILERS BELOW

I don’t mind reading books about terrible people. I read Nabokov’s infamous Lolita and Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I enjoy books by Agatha Christie and Shirley Jackson, which are often populated by entirely by horrible people. Unlike those authors, however, Alexandre Dumas goes to great lengths in order to establish that his musketeers are the ‘good guys’. Their only flaw is that of being too daring. The omniscient narrator is rooting hard for these guys and most of what they say or do is cast in a favourable light and we are repeatedly reminded of their many positive or admirable character traits. If this book had been narrated by D’Artagnan himself, I could have sort of ‘accepted’ that he wouldn’t think badly of himself or his actions…as things stand, it isn’t. Not only does the omniscient narrator condone and heroicizes his behaviour, but the storyline too reinforces this view of D’Artagnan as honourable hero.

Our not so chivalrous heroes
What soon became apparent (to me) was that the narrator was totally off-the-mark when it came to describing what kind of qualities the musketeers demonstrate in their various adventures. For instance, early on in the narrative we are informed that D’Artagnan “was a very prudent youth”. Prudent? This is the same guy who picks a fight with every person who gives him a ‘bad’ look? And no, he doesn’t back down, even when he knows that his opponent is more experienced than he is.
D’Artagnan is not only a hothead but a dickhead. The guy is aggressive, impetuous, rude to his elders and superiors, and cares nothing for his country. Yet, he’s described as being devout to his King, a true gentleman, a good friend, a great fighter, basically an all-rounder!
I was willing to give D’Artagnan the benefit of the doubt. The story begins with him picking up fights left and right, for the flimsiest reasons. The perceived insults that drive him to ‘duel’ brought to mind
Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, so I was temporarily amused. When I saw that his attitude did not change, he started to get on my nerves. Especially when the narrative kept insisting that he was a ‘prudent’ and ‘smart’ young man.
D’Artagnan’s been in Paris for 5 minutes and he already struts around like the place as if he owned the streets. He hires a servant and soon decides “to thrash Planchet provisionally; which he did with the conscientiousness that D’Artagnan carried into everything. After having well beaten him, he forbade him to leave his service without his permission”. Soon after D’Artagnan is approached by his landlord who asks his help in finding his wife, Constance Bonacieux, who has been kidnapped…and D’Artagnan ends up falling in love at first sight with Constance (way to help your landlord!).
While Constance never gives any clear indication that she might reciprocate his feelings or attraction, as she is embroiled in some subterfuge and has little time for love, D’Artagnan speaks of her as his ‘mistress’. Even when he becomes aware that Constance may be up to no good, as she repeatedly lies to him about her whereabouts and motives, D’Artagnan decides to help her because he has the hots for her. Our ‘loyal’ hero goes behind his King’s back and helps Constance, who is the Queen’s seamstress and confidante, hide the Queen’s liaison with the Duke of Buckingham. Let me recap: D’Artagnan, our hero, who hates the Cardinal and his guards because they are rivals to the King and his musketeers, decides to help the Queen deceive their King and in doing so ends up helping an English Duke. Do I detect a hint of treachery? And make no mistake. D’Artagnan doesn’t help the Queen because he’s worried that knowledge of her disloyalty might ‘hurt’ the King’s feelings nor is he doing this because of compassion for the Queen. He decides to betray his country because he’s lusting after a woman he’s met once or twice. Like, wtf man?
Anyway, he recruits his new friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, to help him him out. Their plan involves travelling to England so the Duke can give to D’Artagnan the Queen’s necklace (given to him as a token of her affection). Along the way the musketeers are intercepted by the Cardinal’s minions (the Cardinal wants to expose the Queen’s affair) and Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are either wounded or incapacitated. D’Artagnan completes his mission, he returns to Paris, caring little for his friends’ whereabouts, and becomes once again obsessed by Constance. The Queen shows her gratitude by giving him a flashy ring.
Constance is kidnapped (again) and D’Artagnan remembers that his friends are MIA. He buys them some horses (what a great friend, right?) and rounds them up. He then forgets all about Constance and falls in love with Milady de Winter. He knows that Milady is in cahoots with the Cardinal but he’s willing to ignore this. In order to learn Milady’s secrets, D’Artagnan recruits her maid who—for reasons unknown to me—is in love with him. Our hero forces himself on the maid, and manipulates her into helping him trick Milady. He pretends to be Milady’s lover and visits her room at night, breaking the maid’s heart and putting her life at risk. He later on convinces Milady that her lover has renounced her and visits her once more at night and rapes Milady. D’Artagnan knows that Milady is in love with another man, but idiotically believes that forcing himself on her will have magically changed her feelings. When he reveals that her lover never called things off with her, and it was him who visited her room a few nights prior, well…she obviously goes ballistic. And D’Artagnan, who until that moment was happy to forget that she is a ‘demon’ and ‘evil’, discovers her secret identity.
D’Artagnan remembers that he’s in love with Constance who is then killed off by Milady, just in case we needed to remember that Milady is diabolical…more stuff happens, D’Artagnan wants to save the Duke’s live, just because it is the Cardinal who wants him dead. D’Artagnan, alongside his bros, plays judge, jury, and executioner and corners and condemns to death Milady.
In spite of our hero’s stupidity (he goes to dubious meeting points, ignores other people’s warnings, wears his new ring in front of the Cardinal) he wins. Hurray! Except…that he isn’t a fucking hero. This guy is a menace. He abuses women, emotionally and physically, manipulates them into sleeping with him, forces himself on them, or makes them agree to do his bidding. Women are disposable for D’Artagnan. He uses them and throws them to the side.
But, you might say, the story is set in the 17th century. Things were different then. Women weren’t people. Okay, sure. So let’s have a look at the way in which our young D’Artagnan treats other men. He beats and verbally abuses his servant, he goes behind the King’s back and commits treason, he forgets all about his friends unless he needs help in getting ‘his’ women.
The other musketeers are just as bad. Athos is a psychopath. At the age of 25 he forces himself on a 16-year-old girl, and then marries her because “he was an honorable man”. He later discovers that she has a fleur-de-lis branded on her shoulder, meaning that she was a criminal. Rather than having a conversation with her, asking what her crime was, he decides to hang her himself. Because he’s the master of the land. Athos also treats men rather poorly as he forbids his servant from speaking (not kidding, his servant isn’t allowed to talk). Porthos gaslights an older married woman, forcing her to give him money otherwise he will start seeing other women. Aramis also speaks poorly of women (but at least he isn’t a rapist, so I guess we have a golden boy after all).
The so-called friendship between the musketeers was one of the novel’s most disappointing aspects. These dicks don’t give two shits about each other. D’Artagnan forgets all about his friends, and when he then decides to gift them horses as a ‘sorry I left you for dead’ present, Aramis, Athos, and Porthos end up gambling them or selling them away. What unites them is their idiocy, their arrogance, and their misogyny.

Our diabolical femme fatale and the dignified male villain
Milady is a demon. She’s diabolical. She’s evil. Both the narrative and the various characters corroborate this view of Milady. Much is made of her beauty and her ability to entice men. Sadly, we have very few sections from her perspective, and in those instances she’s made to appear rather pathetic.
Our Cardinal on the other hand appears in a much more forgiving light. He’s the ‘mastermind’, the ‘brains’, and he’s a man, so he gets away with plotting against our heroes.

This book made me mad. I hate it, I hate that people view D’Artagnan & co as ‘heroes’, that the musketeers have become this emblem of friendship, and I absolutely hate the way women are portrayed (victims or vixens). I don’t care if this is considered a classic. Fuck this book.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi — book review

718ueoaymll_custom-1871d31e9581dd75468c9026b282ff89ad688693-s800-c85.jpgThe Death of Vivek Oji is an enthralling novel. Akwaeke Emezi’s lyrical prose is by turns evocative, sensual, and heart-wrenching. With empathy and understanding Emezi writes about characters who are grappling with grief and otherness, as well as with their gender identity and sexuality.

“Did it feel like terror? More like horror, actually. Terrible sounded like it had a bit of acceptance in it, like an unthinkable thing had happened but you’d found space in your brain to acknowledge it, perhaps even begin to accept it. Then again, horrible sounded the same way. The words had departed from their origins. They were diluted, denatured.”

The first line of The Death of Vivek Oji informs us of Vivek Oji’s death. When Chika and Kavita discover the body of their only child outside of their home, their lives are shattered. While Chika retreats inside himself, Kavita is desperate to find out what happened to Vivek. She urges Vivek’s friends to speak out, but they seem unwilling to discuss Vivek with her. While the narrative mostly focuses on Osita—who is Vivek’s cousin—and Kavita’s perspectives, we are also given glimpses into the lives and minds of Vivek’s friends.
While The Death of Vivek Oji follows a formula that isn’t entirely original (a novel that revolves around the death of story’s central character is dead) Emezi’s use of a non-linear narrative and the skilful way in which they inhabit different perspectives (switching between first and third povs) makes this novel stand out.

Nigeria is the backdrop to Vivek’s story and Emezi vividly renders its traditions, its idiosyncrasies, its contemporary culture (90s). Emezi’s narratives is centred on those who feel, or are made to feel, different. Kavita belongs to the Nigerwives, foreign women married to Nigerian men. As this group of women help each other to navigate their married lives, their children come to form a deep bond.
Emezi recounts Vivek’s childhood through Osita’s perspective. When one of Vivek’s blackouts causes Osita to feel greatly embarrassed, the two become estranged. Over the next few years Osita hears of Vivek only through his parent.
Vivek becomes increasingly disinterred with the rest of the world, hides at home, stops going to university, and Kavita, understandably, is worried. She tries to understand her child but seems unable to accept who Vivek is.
Thankfully, Vivek finds solace in the daughters of the Nigerwives. Osita too re-enters Vivek’s life, and the two become closer than ever.

While I found both the sections set in the past and in the present to be deeply affecting, I particularly loved to read of Vivek’s relationship with the Nigerwives’ daughters. Reading about Osita and Kavita’s lives after Vivek’s death was truly heart-wrenching as Emezi truly captures the depths of their grief.
I did find myself wishing to read more from Vivek’s perspective. It seemed that Vivek’s story was being told by people who did not have a clear image of Vivek. There was also a section focused on a character of no importance to Vivek’s story (like, seriously, what was the point in him? it felt really out of place). The mystery surrounding Vivek’s death was unnecessarily prolonged.
But these are minor grievances. I loved the way Emezi articulated the feelings, thoughts, and impressions of their characters with grace and clarity. Emezi’s novel is a real stunner, and if you enjoy books that explore complex familial relationship, such as Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, chances are you will love The Death of Vivek Oji.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi — book review

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DISCLAIMER: having just come across a 5-star review that says negative reviews should not remark on how this book doesn’t really explore Amir’s faith and/or heritage I felt the need to better articulate my thoughts about this book:
1) I’m not saying this book doesn’t have great Muslim rep because I found it unbelievable that a Muslim mc wouldn’t be thinking about his faith/heritage 24/7 or because the mc is a non-practicing Muslim
2) I do think that this book could have delved deeper into Amir’s relationship to his faith/heritage. Throughout the course of this novel Amir states that being gay is incompatible with being Muslim…and that’s it. He merely reiterates ‘Muslims don’t like gay people’…that strikes me (I am being entirely subjective) as somewhat simplistic.
3) the novel opens with his family being detained at an airport. The author states that he wanted to ‘subvert’ this type of situation but I am not sure he succeeded. Scenes from this ‘interrogation’ are interspersed throughout the novel, and it felt extremely gimmicky and insensitive (treating a serious situation in a very superficial and unconvincing way).
4) I’m not a Muslim so I recommend you read reviews from Muslim users.If you are thinking of reading this book I suggest you check out more positive reviews.

What I can comment on however is Ahmadi’s depiction of Italy and Italians (yes, I’m Italian)…which truly irritated me.
Maybe non-Italian readers will be able to overlook the stereotypes in this novel…personally I’m tired of books that portray Italy as a quirky land of Vespas and pasta. Fun fact: Italians don’t just eat pizza and pasta (I know, mind-blowing). Also, why do we always get this quaint image of Italian women hanging their laundry?
The Italian characters left much to be desired. There is this Italian couple (the only two Italian guys who actually make more than two or three appearances), possibly in their late twenties, and they are not monogamous. Cool for them, right? Except that they are actually deeply unhappy and they (view spoiler) Then we have a cute Italian guy from Puglia who plays a rather irrelevant role (I guess he’s there so we can have a kiss scene in the Sistine Chapel?).
Another Italian character is a guy who works at a bar/restaurant and speaks in a “It’s-a Me, Mario” accent (his supposed all-caps texts to his daughter? Ridiculous).

The story is very rushed. Amir is blackmailed, skips his graduation day, and flies to Rome. Here he manages to get an apartment, even if he’s never been to Rome before nor does he speak Italian. Lucky for him he comes across a group of ‘friends’: some are American, some Italian, most are gay. They invite him out, make him feel more comfortable with his sexuality. He manages to make some ‘illegal’ money by writing Wiki articles, he avoids his parents’ phone calls, and he tries not think about returning to America. Although he’s eighteen, he acts like a young teen, which made some of his encounters with his new ‘friends’ a bit problematic. More disappointing still is the fact that none of these gay couples are actually happy (as most of them seem to resent their partner and/or their friends). What kind of message are the readers supposed to get? Amir has ‘fun’ sort of. He drinks out and goes to parties. But then we ‘realise’ that they are either cruel, uncaring, unforgiving, and/or liars. While a certain positive review calls my review out on this, saying that characters should be allowed to be imperfect, I think they missed the point I was trying to make. I’m all for flawed characters but they have to be somewhat realistic. The characters here don’t ‘change’ or ‘learn’ from their mistakes. They are and remain one-dimensional (we have the closeted jock, the smart younger sister, the ‘motherly’ mother, the distant father).
I had the impression that Ahmadi skipped a lot of scenes, so that we had these jumpy transitions in which ‘time passed’ and ‘stuff happened’. The ending felt anticlimactic, angsty for the sake of being angsty (of course we have to have a big fight between our ‘friends’). The interrogation scene predictably amounted to nothing.
The writing, the characterisation, the way Italy is portrayed, all leave a lot to be desired (once again: this is my personal opinion).

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan — book review

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“When I closed my eyes, I could still hear her sharp, stubborn voice and surprisingly unbridled laugh.”

With grace and clarity Clarissa Goenawan’s The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida tells a tragic yet tender tale, one that begins with an ending: Miwako Sumida, a university student, has committed suicide.

“I hadn’t thought I would use my mourning suit again anytime soon. Apart from my sister, I had no living family or relatives. My friends were around my age, and we were all approaching the first peaks of our lives. Graduating, finding a job, getting married, having kids. But Miwako Sumida wouldn’t be among us.”

The novel is divided in three sections, each one following a person who cared for Miwako: there is Ryusei Yanagi (the only first-person narrative) who was in love with her, Chie Ohno, her best friend since high school, and Fumi Yanagi, Ryusei’s older sister. Miwako’s death leaves them reeling, from shock, grief, and guilt, and forces them to question how well they knew her and whether they could have some intervened or prevented Miwako from committing suicide.
Through their different perspectives readers will slowly come to know Miwako. While we may guess what she might have been ‘hiding’ from her loved ones, Miwako retains an air of unknowability. In each section the characters find themselves revisiting their memories of her, giving many scenes a bittersweet quality. Perhaps the setting too contributes to this sense of nostalgia (most of the story takes place in the mid-to-late 80s).
Through her luminous prose Goenawan sheds light on a painful subject matter. Like her characters, she doesn’t romanticise nor condemns Miwako’s actions, rendering instead with empathy the pain that drove her to commit suicide. Goenawan demonstrates the same delicacy when touching upon subjects such as sexual abuse and bullying.
I felt lulled by gentle pace of this novel, even as the story explored distressing realities. Friendships, family history, gender, and sexuality play an important role in each narrative, and I found Goenawan’s portrayal of these to be extremely compelling.

“Her bold strokes gave off a sense of alienation and desperation, but her choice of muted colors conveyed a hidden loneliness. My sister had mastered the application of intricate details to her pieces. At the same time, she took extra care to make sure nothing was overwhelming. I recognized a delicate balance, a sense of equilibrium in all her pieces. What my sister couldn’t tell anyone, she whispered into her work.”

As much as I loved Goenawan’s evocative prose and her well-drawn characters, I was underwhelmed by the overarching storyline. The last section, which followed one of the characters I liked the most, seems far more meandering than the previous ones as it seems to move away from Miwako. And while I do count myself as a fan of magical realism, here it felt a bit sudden.
The ending was rushed and left me wanting more. Still, I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoy literary fiction.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata — book review

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“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”

Convenience Store Woman delights in its own absurdity. In spite of its slender size and its deceptively deadpan style, Sayaka Murata’s novel is surprisingly subversive.
Keiko Furukura’s clipped yet enthusiastic narration manages to both amuse and bewilder. In the very first pages she recounts a childhood episode in which she asks her mother whether they could grill and eat a dead bird. Yet, in spite of these macabre instances, Keiko’s narration has this effervescent energy, this ceaseless optimism, enlivens the more depressing, ambivalent, or unsettling moments.

Keiko is a thirty-six-year old who has been working part-time at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years. While her peers are married and/or have ‘proper’ careers, Keiko is quite content to remain at her convenience store. While other employees have moved on to other jobs, Keiko has no desire to change (herself and her job). She appeases her school acquaintances and colleagues by mimicking their language and behaviours, but she does so not because she actually wants to fit in or due to peer pressure but because she doesn’t want others to question her or the lifestyle she leads (for example that she has never been, nor does she wish to be, in a relationship).
We follow Keiko as she performs the ordinary tasks that make up a shift at the convenience store: welcoming customers, filling shelves, store cleanliness, serving customers at the till…while I personally hate doing these kind of things (and I work as a customer assistant) Keiko seems to genuinely like and be actually good at her job. That she is happy to be a ‘cog’ in the capitalist machine is certainly disquieting but readers will have a hard time envisioning a future in which Keiko is content not to be a convenience store worker (since being a store worker seems an integral part of her identity).

Through Keiko’s unique mind ordinary moments and conversations are tinged with surreality. Although she’s unerringly logical, a lot of her thoughts are frankly bizarre or plain outlandish. Even her most sober observations (on Japanese social and gender norms, notions of normalcy) are injected with a dose of peculiarity.
Through Keiko’s uninhibited narration, Murata emphasises the absurdities of our modern age (particularly about work culture, social conformism, the expectations society places on single women in their 30s, alienation).
Playful, funny, thought-provoking, and occasionally disturbing, Convenience Store Woman is a deeply engrossing novel and Keiko’s slightly off-kilter reality is bound to appeal to readers who enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, books by Hiromi Kawakami, or the recently released Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier.

My rating: 4 of 5 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.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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