We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of those books that probably is best read on a winter's night, snuggled up under a blanket with some candles burning or a fire roaring, and the wind whistling through the trees outside. When you finish it, though, you'll probably want to be somewhere really, really well-lit, surrounded by happy, laughing, well-adjusted people.
It is Gothic literature at its very best, beginning with a general air of foreboding that looms over you and knots itself around you as the story continues, until at the end of it, you feel as stifled and horrified as Constance surely must.
The novella is narrated by Mary Katherine (Merricat), an 18-year-old girl who lives with her older sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian in a grand home outside of town. They live a reclusive life and don't interact much with people in town, for reasons that slowly become clear as the story goes on. Merricat is happy with this lifestyle - she likes methods and schedules and habits, and she casts many spells and does all sorts of magic to ensure that they are kept safe. But one day, Cousin Charles shows up at the door, and Merricat's lifestyle is threatened - he spends a lot of time with Constance and doesn't like Mary Katherine or Uncle Julian. So Mary Katherine has to find a way to make him leave.
There's not much I can say about this book that won't spoil it for those who haven't read it, so before the break, I'll just say this is such a spectacularly written book - so atmospheric, so eerie, and almost cloying in the way it wraps its tentacles around you. I can see why it's such a popular choice for the RIP Challenge. The way you start the book feeling one way about characters and then the way you end it feeling a completely different way, even as you kind of know it's coming but just not the extent to which it's coming - it's all so well done.
And now for spoilers, after the break. PLEASE BE CAREFUL.
I think that should be enough room, right?
Ok, so here we go!
Gosh, I love unreliable narrators. They can make books so much more awesome when they are done well. Mary Katherine is just perfect in this role. You start out thinking that she is this poor, awkward, lonely girl who is bullied by all these hateful people, and then you kind of start wondering if perhaps she deserves some of the dislike, and then you start disliking her, and then you get totally freaked out by her and how unbalanced she is. That scene when she goes to the summer house and imagines everyone talking about how perfect she is? CREEPTASTIC.
I wonder if Mary Kathrine ever felt any remorse. I got a hint that she did when she kept saying, "I must be kinder to Uncle Julian" (even though his way of coping with the situation was to pretend that she had died, too) because it seemed kind of like the sorrowful, "Gosh, I tried and failed to kill you and now you seem like you're all right, so maybe I should atone for my sins by putting a pretty feather in your line of sight." But she never mentioned missing anyone else, and based on her disturbing attachment to her older sister, I have a feeling she'd rather lose people to death than lose them to other people.
The scene where Constance apologizes for mentioning that it was Mary Katherine who put arsenic in everyone's food? Ohmigosh, after that scene, I saw Constance in a totally new light - she was staying with her sister because of her feelings of overwhelming guilt, I know, but I never thought that she walked in constant fear of her own life, too - imagine having to be so careful about everything you do and say because your little sister might kill you if you do something wrong. YIKES.
How bizarre was the end of the book, when Mary Katherine makes the house a fort so that no one can get in and or even see inside? So it is always completely dark inside. Enough to drive a person insane.
Oh, Constance. My heart just went out to her. She must have been so starved for company to have found Charles in any way endearing (unless, of course, Charles was presented to us in a misleading way by Merricat), and that scene at the end where she holds herself back from going after him (possibly because if she did, Mary Katherine would have killed them both) was just so agonizing. Her sitting in the dark, him outside with a getaway car and everything - oh, my poor dear.
Seriously, so much going on in such a short story! It was fantastic. So glad I read it, so much to think about now.