Over the years I’ve had this book recommended to me countless times. It’s a short novel, only 146 pages, but Jackson creates an atmospheric and unsettling world.
The story is told by Mary Katherine Blackwood, nicknamed Merricat. She is eighteen years old and lives with her older sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian in a big house on the outskirts of a village. Everyone else in her family is dead, victims of a poisoning six years previously. Constance was tried for murder, being the only family member present at the dinner to not fall ill (Julian survived but has never fully recovered, Merricat had been sent to bed for bad behaviour). Arsenic was found in the sugar bowl so this was no accident.
Jackson ramps up the suspense from the first page. Merricat tells the reader that the library books are five months overdue, and that until recently she went into the village twice a week to buy supplies and visit the library. We know that something happened, but not yet what. The first chapter documents Merricat’s last visit to the village:
It never mattered who was in the grocery. I was always served at once; Mr Elbert or his pale greedy wife always came right away from wherever they were in the store to get me what I wanted. Sometimes, if their older boy was helping out in school vacation, they hurried to make sure that he was not the one who waited on me and once when a little girl – a child strange to the village, of course – came close to me in the grocery Mrs Elbert pulled her back so roughly that she screamed and then there was a long still minute while everyone waited before Mrs Elbert took a breath and said, “Anything else?”
The turning point comes when the girls’ Cousin Charles arrives out of the blue one day. Seemingly preoccupied with the rumoured wealth of his cousins (they have removed their money from the bank and keep it in a safe in the house), and admitting that his own parents have recently died and left little wealth behind. Merricat immediately distrusts him, but Constance is more hospitable, glad even to have a newcomer. Poor Constance, acquitted and yet still blamed for the deaths by the villagers, never leaves the house and at twenty eight years old is trapped caring for an elderly uncle and her younger sister who can best be described as disturbed.
Jackson’s use of language, the way she drips in new information regularly so that the reader is constantly adjusting what they think may have happened, is masterful. There is always a worry with books that promise so much so early on that the end will not deliver. That was not the case here. Published in 1962, this was the last of her five novels. I am now keen to delve into her other work.