Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I admit to choosing this book based entirely on the recommendation of Neil Gaiman (a man doing a curious fundraiser), who listed this as one of his favorite books that influenced his style. It also fits neatly into my reading list as “A Book That Became a Movie” (the casting looks superb), although it hasn’t been released yet this year.

Following the lives of elder sister Constance and younger sister Mary Katherine (Merricat) six years after the death of their family, the story is told through the eyes of Merricat, the strangest of the two strange Blackwood girls. The story was presented to be as being gothic horror, but it seems more unsettling than truly terrifying (although perhaps that’s what it means to be gothic horror?). Merricat sees the world very different from the rest of us, full of dangers that can only be avoided by nailing books to trees and thinking of magic words to never again repeat. Oh, and of course, she’s killed before.

Merricat clearly has violent urges (thinking about the people around her dying gives her great pleasure, and she wipes out a whole nest of baby snakes that weren’t bothering her simply because Constance didn’t tell her she couldn’t), and yet, she doesn’t actively harm anyone during the course of the book, not even Charles. She destroys a great many things, but she doesn’t actually attack or kill another person after she did away with most of her family. She even deliberately tries to be nicer to her Uncle Julian, the only poisoned family member to survive. This suggests to me that the true targets for her Merricat were her father, mother, and younger brother (who, as her father’s heir, was probably turning out very much like him), a group that, through clues scattered through the book, seems to have been a truly dreadful group of people. Even sweet Constance said they had it coming. Uncle Julian and his wife, Dorothy, were likely incidental targets. Constance was, of course, deliberately spared, as she seems to be a surrogate mother figure for Merricat, even once calling Merricat her “baby”.

The ending of the book is rather happy, if you’re Merricat, a hermit, or someone distrustful of people in general. For all that we might think of her as crazy, Merricat seems incredibly wise and capable of handling things. She’s a truly remarkable heroine, not “strong” in the traditional sense, but loyal (in her way), perceptive, engaging, and rather charismatic. She’s someone that will live in my head for years to come.

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