This really is the last pair of books I read in the tail end of 2018 – from here-on in it’ll be 2019 reading all the way! But first two book group choices: Firstly the book we read over Christmas and discussed last week, and then February’s book – I’m writing about it now so I can pass my copy on.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
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.
Despite that arresting opening paragraph, or perhaps in spite of it, this book really divided our book group – there was no middle ground. It was a re-read for me, and I enjoyed it hugely all over again.
Shirley Jackson remains virtually unknown in the UK, outside of the book world. This, her last novel, was published in 1962 and along with The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a creepy Gothic horror story and her debut short story The Lottery remain her best-known works – but Penguin publish her entire back catalogue in Modern Classics livery.
Merricat, as she is known, lives with her sister Constance, and her ageing Uncle Julian in a crumbling mansion. They keep themselves to themselves, they’re not welcome in the village – every time Merricat has to go and get supplies, she has to run the gauntlet of the villagers. This is because, despite being proven innocent, they all believe that Constance is a murderer, they believe it was she who put arsenic in the sugar bowl that killed the girl’s family. The girls inherited enough money that they need for nothing, but live simply in the mansion. Merricat, who appears younger than her eighteen years, keeps their boundaries safe, burying talismans to protect against incursions, (reminding me of Frank’s ‘sacrifice poles’ in The Wasp Factory). Uncle Julian, who has signs of dementia, is still working on his magnum opus, an account of that fateful day. Everything carries on as normal, until one day, cousin Charles arrives and stirs everything up. He is after his share of the inheritance…
I won’t say any more about the story, what there is of it. Things do happen, but never in the ways you might expect, it’s finely nuanced and pervaded with a sense of gentle paranoia and small-town persecution. In my US deluxe Penguin edition, a foreword by Jonathem Lethem tells how this story was influenced by what happened to Jackson, who came from San Francisco, when she moved with her Jewish husband to North Bennington in Vermont, where they were very much the outsiders, more so after the success of The Lottery, which apparently (I’ve not read it, but ought to) relies on small-town attitudes for its horror. This is a subtle novel with a pair of fascinating characters at its heart. I loved it all over again. (10/10)
Source: Own copy Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), paperback, 176 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)
The Dry by Jane Harper
Australia was our theme for picking our February book, and this, the debut by UK born, now living in Australia author Jane Harper. It really launched Harper on the scene, and her third novel is due out in early Feb. It’s a well-plotted crime thriller but what sets it apart from the fare currently being offered to us on the supermarket shelves which are full of generic yellow and turquoise, or black, red and white crime covers and mostly set in claustrophobic, dark and wet, seedy locations – is that The Dry is set in the tinderbox outback of Australia, and the cover has a blazing sunset. This makes it irrestistible to those whose appetites for crime thrillers is becoming jaded. It does begin with a well-worn trope though – a blowfly scene:
It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse. […]
The body in the clearing was the freshest. It took the flies slightly longer to discover the ones in the farmhouse, despite the front door swinging open like an invitation. […]
First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet. […] Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm.
So nothing reacted when deep inside the house, the baby started crying.
Aaron Falk now works for the finance police in Melbourne. He hadn’t been sure whether to return to Kiewarra for the funeral of his best friend Luke Hadler, Luke’s wife Karen and young son. But Luke’s father sent him a message that meant he had to go:
Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral. (p8)
Although not returning to his hometown in an official capacity, Falk finds himself teaming up with local cop Raco to investigate the Hadler’s deaths – Luke’s father had asked him to look into the farm’s finances after all. Something doesn’t add up. Why would Luke have killed his wife, his son and then himself? Sure the farm wasn’t doing well in the present climate, no-one was, but they weren’t broke yet. Luke and Karen had seemed solid. We soon find out why Falk and his father left Kiewarra when Aaron was a teenager, after an event caused the community to reject them. Luke and Aaron share a secret, and by returning, it is all likely to bubble up again. Many of those who were there then, are still there now, and most of them are still mad at Aaron, with the exception of Gretchen who’d been one of their group, and had stayed.
The searing heat of the outback comes off the page, as do the small-town attitudes. Everyone knows everyone else, so within the expanse of the huge landscape there is a people-related claustrophobia. The plot is layered, complex, and the answers when they come are satisfying. The clues are there, but I missed them! I’m hoping we’ll have a lot to talk about at our Feb Book Group meeting. A superb debut. (10/10)
Source: Own copy Jane Harper, The Dry (Abacus, 2016), paperback, 404 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)