I had never read anything by Shirley Jackson before this, and I don’t know what it was specifically that made me choose this book, Hangsaman, over her others. Possibly because it was just not the one that everyone has been talking about recently (that would be We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which honestly looks brilliant). Also I liked the PMC cover. Anyway, I chose Hangsaman as my first Shirley Jackson, and I am glad I did. You should read it too. Let me tell you why…
Firstly, Hangsaman is really quite odd and I really quite liked that. The first section especially is quite surreal and almost dreamy, and I have to admit it took a while to get into. But I still liked it, even though I wasn’t sure I got it yet, so I kept reading. I liked Natalie, our main character, who is young and awkward and weird, and just trying to understand the mess of life that surrounds her. That is probably how I would summarise the book, other than saying that most of the story takes place once Natalie has left home for college. Hangsaman was first published in 1951, and that appears to be the era in which it is set. Natalie attends a women’s college and moves into a house (what we would now call Halls) with her own room, which she loves, and she is surrounded by ALL THESE OTHER GIRLS. Jackson’s description of teenage girls, especially en masse or in cliques, is just spot on. Having gone to an all-girls school for fourteen years, I know how this bullshit works, and Jackson knows too. There is a particularly brilliant passage in which she describes the girls on their first night, gathered in the living/common room and trying to get to know each other. It is too long to quote in full, but it begins:
They sat around the living room of the house, the girls who were to live in it, eyeing one another, each one wondering, perhaps which of the others was to be her particular friend, sought out hereafter at such meetings, joined in the terrible sacred friendship of these years. Each one wondering, perhaps, who it was just and right to be afraid of in the room…
That ellipsis is mine, as it goes on from there. Natalie has to navigate this minefield and try to find someone to befriend and trust, two things that do not necessarily go hand in hand in this situation. Because other people are unknowable. And in a way, Natalie is unknowable, to either herself or the reader. The back cover of this PMC edition states that Natalie’s “identity gradually crumbles.” From the start she doesn’t know who she is, and her college experiences only confound this. There is a lot of wonderful free indirect speech within which we get glimpses of Natalie’s lack of surety and confidence in herself, including some wonderful moments musing on whether or not she is really Natalie at all.
But Natalie does make friends, for better or worse, and in the last third of the book meets “the girl Tony”, a mysterious figure who appears almost like a nymph or a fairy… or something darker. The reader is not quite sure, and neither is Natalie.The middle of the book is mostly concerned with college life, and Natalie starting to move from girl to young woman, and towards the end of the book, with Tony, Natalie seems to retreat more and more into her own mind. The weirdness gets weirder, and though this could have made the whole thing fall apart, Jackson manages to have enough control that there is still a coherent thread throughout. The last section of the book is the oddest of all, and we wonder which parts of it are real and which parts are in Natalie’s head. Mostly I was left wondering about the connection with the line on the back of the book, that says Hangsaman was “inspired by the unsolved disappearance of a female college student near Shirley Jackson’s home”. I’m still thinking about how that applies to the story, and I think there are multiple layers here that I will only manage to uncover over time, as I think about the book more and it sinks in a little. It is quite an intense book, and you’ve got to get comfortable with it, and used to it, to really get it I think.
As I mentioned to start with, I rather like the 2013 PMC cover – it is sparse and cold, but I think it works very well. Luckily GoodReads have their ‘Other Editions’ option that shows you previous covers. And Hangsaman has had some weird ones, which I will leave you with here…
All cover images from GoodReads, by the way. Also I’m not sure if there were any new editions between 1976 and 2013 – there must have been. Research needed.
Who else has read Hangsaman? Thoughts?
Originally published in 1951. I read the 2013 Penguin Modern Classics edition, pictured above.