Fiction, Reviews

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1949)

I’ve read three of Shirley Jackson’s novels, so it only felt right to try some of her short stories; and after all, The Lottery is heralded as one of the most brilliant (and controversial) in the genre.

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2009 PMC edition

At first, some of these stories reminded me Truman Capote’s with their edge of uncertainty and fear underlying the safe environment of the home – I particularly thought of his story Miriam, with its creeping unease. But as this collection goes on the stories become more and more unsettling, until the story of the title is reached at the very end and the reader is left bewildered and amazed.

I already knew that Jackson was a wonderful novelist, but now I know that she is also a master of the short story. Her ability to create not only tension and uncertainty but also vivid characters and settings with so few words really is impressive. She also makes liberal use of ambiguous endings to leave the reader wondering if they really understood what they just read, or if she misled them the whole time. It’s like the bewilderment at the end of her novel Hangsaman repeated over and over.

Like most of her work that I’ve read so far, these stories of Jackson’s are often concerned with the fragility of the positions, statuses, and environments that women have created for themselves in society. Housewives are under threat from forces trying to disrupt their marriage or their neighbourhood; an executive is threatened by the presence of a new receptionist and the confusion over her relationship with her boss; and several female characters are pushed to the edge of their sanity. There is much to fear in the apparently safe worlds of home and work. Even the husbands and boyfriends can pose some sort of underlying threat.

Most interesting to me was Jackson’s repeated use of the name James Harris for male characters; this name first appears in the story The Daemon Lover. This is also the name of a Scottish ballad – that is also known as ‘James Harris’. Jackson’s story features a young woman waiting for her fiancé on their wedding day, who happens to be called James Harris. This name appears again and again various forms (sometimes ‘Mr Harris’ or simply ‘Jim’) and the reader wonders if he is a symbol for the harm that men can do to women through their attitudes and treatment. Jackson’s James Harris is the man your mother warned you about, the stranger who stares at you, the boyfriend you’re not quite sure about. It is a potent symbol of the threat to women’s rights and happiness in society and the home.

This collection was first published in the late 1940s, and we must remember that this was a time when women were expected to return to their subservient pre-war roles, and the men were returning to the work force. Jackson’s women yearn for more than their small domestic lives – or they guard them fiercely. There is a sense that the world one has created could so easily be destroyed by one person or one decision, and women are particularly vulnerable to this. These underlying issues make these stories even more brilliant than they are on the surface, and made me realise how sharp and intelligent Jackson’s writing is, and how wonderful it is to read.

I’m now on a mission to read everything she has ever written!

*

Originally published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 1949. I read the 2009 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

 

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Fiction, Reviews

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

I had been wanting to read this for a while and finally got round to it last week… and it was just so brilliant. So weird. So good. Suffice to say, I gave it five stars on GoodReads.

Even before reading I loved the premise, what I knew of it, and as with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s masterful opening paragraph drew me right in:

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 death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

It’s a pretty bold first paragraph. In many ways it sums up our narrator Mary Katherine, AKA Merricat, and gives you a palpable sense of dread mixed with curiosity.

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2015 PMC paperback (image: penguin.co.uk)

I found Merricat to be a very sympathetic narrator. I have heard her referred to as an unreliable narrator, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. As you read more it quickly becomes clear that Merricat has some kind of psychological disorder, and just isn’t like everyone else. So she sees the world differently to the other characters, even her sister Constance; but that doesn’t necessarily make her an unreliable narrator. She describes events pretty much literally; the only ‘unreliable’ thing is when she says her cat is talking to her, and in the context that just sounds quite sweet. The cat, Jonas, is like another person to Merricat, and is obviously very loyal and attached to her. I liked their moments of closeness.

Now, the dead family. That’s quite important. At the time of events in the book it has been only six years since the family died, but without knowing that you’d think it was a lot longer. Merricat and Constance are very comfortable in their routine and rarely speak of their deceased relatives; when they do, it is usually because their senile (possibly brain-damaged) old uncle Julian has dedicated his life to remembering and documenting the lives of the family, and especially the day they died. He speaks almost exclusively about that day, and the family. Constance nods along and answers his questions, but Merricat stays out of it. They have a peaceful if slightly odd little life, despite being hated by the people in the village, who scorn Merricat when she goes into town to go food shopping.

The sisters are ostracised from the village, and treated as social pariahs. This is partly because their family, the Blackwoods, have always ‘kept to themselves’ and disliked mixing with the rest of the village; but it is mostly because Constance was accused of murdering the family and was even tried, but eventually acquitted. Now, she does not leave the house except to tend to her kitchen garden. Merricat only leaves to do the shopping, and clearly hates it. While only Constance could be described as actually agoraphobic, none of the family like leaving the house and land. I have read that Shirley Jackson was in ill health and possibly agoraphobic when she wrote the novel, and the sense of safety and isolation within the home is very vivid. The house protects the vulnerable sisters from the outside world, but it also imprisons them. When their cousin Charles comes to visit and disrupts their routines, you can see how desperately they need to maintain their life and order. When he interferes, everything goes wrong.

It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I won’t go into any more of the plot. What I will say is that it is very much worth buying the new PMC edition as it has a fantastic afterword by Joyce Carol Oates, in which she analyses both story and characters. It made me think about the book in a lot more detail. She suggests that Merricat might have a form of paranoid schizophrenia, and also connects her and Constance’s behaviour to traditional stories of witches. Merricat certainly has a connection to nature, and she believes that by burying things in the land around the house, as well as nailing objects to trees, she can protect herself and her sister (plus there’s the cat). Having been immersed in the story it is almost jarring to hear Merricat given a clinical diagnosis – when you’re with her in the book, you can see that she is not ‘normal’, and that her behaviour can be destructive or malicious, but as I said she is essentially a sympathetic character, and you are on her side. It is really quite upsetting to read about the villagers’ hatred for the sisters, and the cruel way they are treated by Charles. They are so fragile that you just want them to be safe, and left alone. Joyce Carol Oates also points out that Merricat just could not survive in the outside world, and this is probably true. She needs the safety of their little world more than Constance, and she does whatever she can to protect it. In some ways Constance’s life is controlled by Merricat, who is much more willful and determined.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a gothic tale, but it is also a story about mental illness and the ways in which we cope with it – and the ways in which it is stigmatised and not understood by others. I felt desperately sad for Merricat and Constance and what they suffer. But they are able to find a lot of happiness in each other, and often talk about how happy they are. They have an almost symbiotic relationship, and rely on each other a lot, least of all emotionally and psychologically.

There is a lot more I could talk about here, but for now I’ll leave it at that. I would really recommend the Joyce Carol Oates afterword for some excellent discussion and analysis. I would also love to hear others’ views on the book – did you find Merricat a sympathetic and likeable character? What about Constance?

I have been wondering about what would happen after the end of the book. The sisters are still very young, so they have a potentially long life to live out together. What will become of them? Frankly I’m still thinking about them, and hoping they are safe and happy. Even the weird deserve that.

*

First published in the US in 1962. I read the 2015 Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Purchase from Foyles

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Fiction, Reviews

Sweet Francoise 

I don’t remember the impetus behind my finally buying a copy of Bonjour Tristesse, but I’m glad I did. Honestly it sat on my shelf for a long time – there are too many new books! – but deciding to do TBR20 made me pick it up again. I have a beautiful PMC edition whose cover promises romance, mystery, and lots of French sexiness.

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Gorgeous, isn’t it? I love these new editions with the white band at the top and bottom. This photo is also a really excellent choice for Bonjour Tristesse – a young woman and a (possibly older) man, sheltering her. Youth is so important to this story, in all its forms. Anyway. It’s a lovely book throughout, and Sagan’s language is simultaneously easy to read and elegant, charming, particularly when our narrator Cecile muses on herself:

I do believe that most of the things I took pleasure in during that period [in Paris with her father] simply came down to money – the pleasure of fast driving, of having a new dress, of enjoying those shallow pleasures, and anyway I only call them shallow because I’ve heard people say they are.  It would come more naturally to me to regret or disown any distress or fits of mysticism I may have had. My love of pleasure and happiness constitutes the only consistent aspect of my character. Perhaps I haven’t read enough.

In passages like this Cecile seems remarkably self-aware for a seventeen-year-old (though she may be a little older when writing her reflections, but not by much). It’s moments like this that really made me fond of Cecile, and made me marvel at the duality of simple/complicated in this book. If you recount the plot, it is simple, but there are a million small, human, moments that perfectly demonstrate how difficult it can be to be young, to be jealous, to have desires. I was fascinated by Cecile’s relationship with her father and their dependence on each other. They are sort of like a platonic husband and wife, living life firmly together, and tolerating each other’s relationships whilst still wanting each other to be happy. The lack of Cecile’s mother is vital. It means that she takes that position of her father’s companion, and wants him for herself, and yet still craves a mother figure. For me this is what fuels her complex, contrary feelings towards her father’s fiancée Anne.

I wish I had read Bonjour Tristesse when I was in my late teens, and I would recommend it to anyone of that age, girl or boy. It is the perfect antidote to most ‘teen fiction’ and yet it perfectly captures the feelings you have at that age. Cecile’s experience is an extreme example, but it is wonderful to know that feeling like that isn’t wrong or strange. It is part of life, part of becoming an adult. I personally remember having about a thousand different feelings at once, and constantly changing my mind and opinions about people and things. It’s totally normal and reading about it in such a classic, revered, French book like Bonjour Tristesse makes it all feel valid. Thank you Francoise!

Francoise. (image: the100.ru)

Francoise. (image: the100.ru)

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