Review: Krig, Kvinnor och Gud av Beata Arnborg

För en gångs skull kommer en svensk recension, hurra! Händelsen som frambringat detta är en fantastisk biografi jag precis läst, nämligen Beata Arnborg’s bok Krig, Kvinnor och Gud. Den följer författaren och journalisten Barbro Alving, genom hennes liv från barndomen omgiven av kåseri och tragedi, till hennes genombrott i nyhetsjournalismens värld, fram till hennes trötta slut. En god biografi ska förstås kunna läsas (och tilltalas) även av läsare som inte är bekanta med personen i fråga innan de då gräver sig djupt in i personens liv. En biografi kan, då den är gjord på bästa vis, väcka ett intresse i subjektet som senare spånar till nästa bok efter mer vetande om just denna person, eller dess bibliografi om subjektet har lämnat efter sig skrifter. Detta är just vad Beata Arnborg lyckas med; hon väcker ett intresse för Barbro som journalist och aktivist, för någon som var helt främmande till hennes plats i svensk historia. Hon lyckas dessutom göra en underhållande, tankeväckande, och vacker målning av en tidvis trött och deprimerad, framgångsrik och anmärkningsvärd tänkare och skrivare, som lämnat tydliga avtryck under hennes långa karriär och rest till alla världens vrår.

Barbro Alving är intressant som subjekt delvis på grund av hennes person; hennes fria bisexualitet, som inte tycks ge samtida normer någon som helst vikt i frågan om kärlek. Hennes aktivism och i synnerhet aktiva motstånd mot kärnvapen och atombomben, eller hennes roll i kvinnofrågor under större delen av 1900-talet. Hon är också intressant i mån om hennes yrke; hon reste till alla möjliga länder och platser i konflikt, i syfte att skriva artiklar om aktuella händelser och upplevelser av såväl kungligheter som vanligt folk. Hon var aktiv i politiska frågor, intervjuade den ena ledaren till den andra, och grumblade en lång tid över sin egna religionstillhörighet. Därmed det tillvalda “Gud” till titeln, även om det kanske bättre hade kunnats beskriva med en “sinnesro” som egentligen verkar ha motiverat såväl hennes funderingar kring tro som hennes velanden mellan livsbeslut och ibland motsägelsefulla livsstil, som i sig ibland ledde till lite väl stor arbetsbörda, sorg, och otillräcklighet.

En annan del av genren biografi är förstås att spegla den tid och plats personen i fråga levde; att ge en kontext. Därför är den här boken inte enbart en biografi om Barbro Alving utan också en resa genom den större delen av 1900-talet, särskilt från 20-talet till 70-talet, och där Alving troligen kan sägas ha nått sin topp i karriären kring 40-talet. I boken speglas världskrig, efter-tiden när samhällen tvingades återgå till en slags normalitet och de svårigheter man stötte på, fattigdom, olympiska spel, historiska resor som den första resan med SAS över Nordpolen mot Japan, stora event som små; Barbro Alving var inte bara en del av denna tid utan aktivt deltagande i den. Genom hennes många resor, skildringar av nutiden, och hennes motgångar, synes världens konstanta transformation. Det är därför en bok som borde tilltala även den historie intresserade, särskilt med fokus på Sverige men självklart också en god del världhistoria i och med Alving’s jobb.

Ett sista ord ska läggas till Beata Arnborg’s skrivande i sig självt. Den här boken är nog så väl stödd på källor och rik i information både om Alving själv och hennes omvärld. Men vad som gjorde den så speciell är just dess förfatarinnas fina hand med språk – med vilka sätt hon väljer uttrycka simpla fakta, med elegans och med en glädje i ord – så som det också verkar varit för Alving, ett nöje i att hitta den perfekta formuleringen; de helt rätta orden, för situationen, för konstens skull. Det här är en biografi som kan njutas av på flera nivåer, och som möjligen kan väcka intresse både för Alving, hennes samtida författare och tänkare, såväl som den svenska litteraturhistorian i synnerhet, svensk historia också i allmänhet.

Om Boken
Titel: Krig, Kvinnor och Gud
Författare: Beata Arnborg
Genre: Biografi, Facklitteratur
Utkom: 2010
Orginalspråk: Svenska

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Review: Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

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Romantic Outlaws is the ambitious double biography of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, written by Charlotte Gordon. The choice for combining the two women’s life stories might seem strange to anyone who knows of their time-lines; Shelley’s birth coincided with her mother’s death, not spending more than a few days on earth at the same time. So what do their stories have to do with one another? As Gordon masterfully shows, we see not only parallels in the daughter Mary Shelley’s life choices and way of living, but in the society she moved through – how they both ended up in similar situations, plagued by tragedy, loneliness, and sorrow, and faced with scorn. This book makes it clear just how much we carry with us through the heritage of our parents, the stories we hear of their legacy and the place we build for ourselves in their shadows – especially such famous figures like Wollstonecraft and her husband, Godwin. We see how these women faced similar challenges and often dealt with them in alike ways, and yet how they differed in their personalities – but faced the same criticism from their peers and proceeding generations. “Romantic Outlaws” brings Wollstonecraft and Shelley to life, showing women of complex natures and human flaws, who pushed through their forced constraints and either through writing or life, challenged the status quo.

The biography itself is structured with alternate chapters, back and forth between Mary Shelley and her mother Wollstonecraft. It starts off with the birth and death, but slowly builds a fuller fledged picture of both women and in doing so, how nature repeats itself. Mary Wollstonecraft was a revolutionary, now hailed as a feminist icon – that she truly was. It is especially clear in her chapters how she was a product of her time, active in politics in the very midst of the French Revolution and its spiraling towards violence. As Gordon herself points out, in some respects Mary Shelley lived in a more conservative time despite this being the post-revolution years. Because of that, we see Mary Shelley’s choices reflecting the less acceptable society and public of the time – opting to lay low in circumstances where anything else would mean certain ruin, weaving political views into her fiction rather than shouting them outright to the world. While Wollstonecraft started out her life in tragedy; Shelley seems to have had the opposite fate, beginning life as a ‘fated’ one only to be burdened with death after death after miserable death.

What makes this book great is partly its contents. Not every historical figure or famous personage would necessarily warrant an entire ‘life of’ for the common reader. Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft were both amazing women, accomplishing amazing feats, that is still very much visible today. Who is not familiar with the story of Frankenstein in this day and age? While Wollstonecraft was for a long time hidden away in history, she was an important grounder for feminism of her time that still reverberates in contemporary thought. Both also had lives filled with tragedy and laced with surprises; theirs are the stranger than fiction variety of narratives that will make you eager to turn the page to find out more. But another major reason this book is so successful at what it does is Charlotte Gordon’s writing style. This biography just flows; while being packed with information and two entire lives, this book never gives up the storytelling for its facts. Somehow, Gordon manages to make a kaleidoscope of puzzle pieces that breathes and makes you feel as if you know these women intimately. It is written to be enjoyed and to fall a bit in love with its subjects, as I’m sure the author too feels.

An engaging tome of a biography, about two fascinating historical figures; that will make you want to track down everything Wollstonecraft and Shelley ever published in their tumultuous lives on this earth.

About the Book
Title: Romantic Outlaws – The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley
Author: Charlotte Gordon
Year of Publication: 2015
Publisher: Hutchinson
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

31930881Much like Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Lab Girl seems to have appealed to a greater variety of readers than other books within the nature writing sub-genre of nonfiction. While Hope Jahren’s book is about nature, as her work focuses on plant life, it is mainly a memoir – of a life as a daughter, mother, friend, and scientist. The book itself is constructed with parallel chapters of Jahren’s life, with general discussions on plants – fact spicing up the memoir rather than the other way round. The more scientific chapters are usually short, and a bit more detached than her otherwise very personal tone throughout the book. The audiobook adds another layer of the personal, as Jahren narrates it herself – and chokes up from time to time, in telling her own story. This book is both the story of one woman scientist’s journey into the field she thrives in and has spent most of her life dedicated to, as well as a personal story of learning to embrace shortcomings in oneself, coming to terms with family history and relationships, building new bridges and daring to cross them. At times funny, other times saddening, most of all this book is intimate and honest to the upmost degree.

Hope Jahren talks about her family history and her roots in the Scandinavian (or as she says, Viking) ways; her family emigrated from Norway to America some generations back, and she often notes on this legacy as shaping her family life – in particular, her complicated relationship with her mother. She doesn’t just find blame in all the things her mother did wrong, but looks back into her mother’s past – to see how the pieces link, and build cause and effect over the long term. Her feelings of loss or lack as a child, and what she thinks she should’ve or wished she could’ve had, is made more nuanced when she finds herself pregnant – how she reacts to the whole process of growing a child, from pregnancy to birth to being a guardian, responsible for another individual’s life.

While Jahren discusses many of the big events in her life, like meeting her soon-to-be husband, married life, having her child, and changes in her living situation; even more central to the book is her relationship with a life-long friend and colleague, Bill. He is without a doubt a ‘main character’, from the early pages right to the end notes. He is central in the book because he is central to Jahren’s life, both for her work as they have been working together for more than twenty years, but also in her life separate from work – the brother she chose to have, rather than given to her by blood. Their relationship is one of incredible strength, and if you don’t tear up at least once at their partnership and mutual trust, I’d be surprised. As Jahren herself puts it in the epilogue, they have lived through several hospital visits, traveled all over the world, done more than a decade’s worth of work, and more, together; theirs is a relationship of faith, mutual dependence, love, and belonging. Partners in crime, in other words.

My favorite aspect of the book however, was the sections dealing specifically with life as a researcher. Jahren doesn’t romanticize her work; working hard to earn grants and getting the money she needs to stay afloat, spending hours and hours of doing work and getting very little in return for it, prioritizing this role or tasks over everything else and being more present in the lab than anywhere else, coming up with set-back after set-back and having to keep on keeping on even when everything feels overwhelming. She writes about all the things that make her work impossible, and at the same time what makes it necessary. There is at all times a clear love for science and the natural world, the passion for knowledge and walking new ground, alongside the hardship that must come with such a path. You get both sides, the good and the bad, the unbearable and the magical. Not only is this book a memoir of a professional/paid researcher, which in itself is invaluable – Jahren also touches on her mental health, and how it plays and has played a part in her decisions, life, and work. It’s easy to look at people from the outside as successful, therefor content, based on personal criteria – but their lives are rarely only what you see. Beneath, often lies hard work, battles with personal demons, pushing through boundaries within oneself and climbing over hurdles that are invisible to the human eye. It doesn’t make them any less real, and I think it’s always worth being reminded of the less than perfect background story to the successful outcomes, the almost-failures or giving ups that were barely avoided to get to that finish line. This book is probably worth reading for those paths chronicled, alone; especially if you happen to aspire to walk down a similar road.

Lab Girl is a personal, sometimes gut punching, story of a woman who found her home in the lab, and she invites you to sit down beside her for a while to hear stories worth a lifetime.

About the Book
Title: Lab Girl
Author: Hope Jahren
Year Published: 2016
Genre: Non-Fiction, Nature

Review: Making the Monster by Kathryn Harkup

34918613This year marks the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’, and with the anniversary came a plethora of titles about the author and the novel in  question, as well as a brand new Penguin Classics Black Spine edition of the original 1818 text. Among this multitude of new releases, the one I just read is perhaps the most scientifically leaning, as the title implies: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is written by the author whose first book gave the same treatment to Agatha Christie and her use of poison, in A is for Arsenic. In Making the Monster, Kathryn Harkup discusses what influenced Mary Shelley in the writing of the ‘first science fiction novel’; a classic tale of horror and science gone awry, that is so prevalent in adaptations as to make it completely part of the common consciousness.

Frankenstein has had many adaptions since its original publication, and some of them came not very far after its initial release. However, the more adaptions have appeared, the more distorted perhaps the ideas of the original story become to people who have not read Shelley’s own work. It appears the adaption-train works like the whisper game; changing in shape with each step along the way. Kathryn Harkup touches on some of the common misconceptions regarding the novel and its conception, most strongly perhaps the way the “creature” or the “monster” is portrayed in many theatrical performances and movies. Most notably is the way the creature has often been made mute in adaptions, whereas he is unusually eloquent in the source material. Harkup writes about most of the mix ups with the adapted versions and the original intentions – further, all of her discussion on the novel’s intricacies are done with examples in place. It is therefor my belief that you could read and enjoy ‘Making the Monster’ without having actually read Frankenstein before. Although I doubt you’d be able to get through the whole book without wanting to, because as is quite clear early on in this book – Shelley had a stranger than fiction life, and her novel too have so many layers to unravel, even more so if you knew something about the late 18th-early 19th century ideas of Enlightenment and scientific theory.

The book’s subtitle clearly says “science behind”, but this is slightly inaccurate as a great deal of the book is taken up with Mary Shelley’s personal story. The book follows Mary Shelley’s own life from growing up, familial relationships with parents and her siblings, meeting Percy Shelley and starting a family with him, moving to Italy and writing her debut novel. It does also touch on her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, as she was an important influence in her life while not being directly present in it. Both women’s life stories are truly breathtakingly tragic and eventful to say the least, you almost forget you’re reading about real events and not a Wuthering Height-esque drama. Alongside the parts that follow the young author of Frankenstein, we are introduced to influential people in Mary’s own life – people like her father, Godwin, or Lord Byron; and influential figures of the era, like John Hunter – anatomist extraordinaire, Volta and Aldini – scientists of electricity, and many, many more.

While Kathryn Harkup writes about Mary Shelley, her beginnings as a writer and the people that inspired her directly and indirectly; the real fire of the book is of course, the scientific focused sections. The book itself is following Frankenstein’s general structure, in that it discusses themes of the book gradually in chronological order from the education of Victor Frankenstein in the early pages, to ending with the final showdown between maker and creature. In each step of Victor Frankenstein’s progression, we get a little bit closer to the science fiction, and also see glimpses of science of the time as thought within reach, and other things that are only now more than the stuff of dreams. Harkup touches on things like the history of alchemy and elixir of life, historical ideas of science and the changes with the Enlightenment era. She discusses human dissection in its early years, bodies becoming a commodity and being snatched from graves, the lack of rights for prisoners/criminals of the time, what happens to bodies when they die (and decay, in what order, how and when), electricity as part of the human body’s “stuff of life”; basically, all the science that could have been relevant to Victor in building his monster, this book deals with it in one way or another. If you have wondered about the details left vague in Mary Shelley’s story, in the experiment itself and why the creature was made the way it was – you should pick this book up. If you are a Frankenstein fan and can’t get enough of it, you should also read this book – I am almost certain you will delight in the level of nerdiness Harkup reaches. If you are interested in history of science and the beginnings of practices we take for granted now – like organ transplants, heart surgery, dissection, electricity; you should probably also read this book.

If there is a book that could make many a reader truly enjoy reading about science, to both cringe at the things they did and laugh at how far we’ve come, and at the same time shudder in the prize so many people had to pay for getting where we are, Making the Monster is certainly in the bidding.

About the Book
Title: Making the Monster – The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Author: Kathryn Harkup
Year of Publication: 2018
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Genre: Non-fiction

Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

“…as she naively attempted to revive her weakened passion with external stimulants. She kept promising herself that on her next trip, she would be profoundly happy; then she would admit that she had not felt anything extraordinary.”

Madame Bovary is the story of a young women who gets married with haste and soon regrets being stuck with the boring and unambitious Charles Bovary, in the suburbs of France. Emma is an unlikable heroine in the strongest colors imaginable – not only does she have flings or affairs on the side of married life, she forces Charles into a financial situation so hard as to make his household bare as bones at the end of it all. While the book is I think often described as a romance; adultery, marriage, secret love – being definite ingredients; I would say that the romance is never the novel’s main raison d’etre. Rather, what makes this book is Emma herself. She is very young when we first see her in these pages, and when Charles comes around she believes she has fallen in love with him and can’t wait to be swept away from her childhood home to a new place, a new world, and to experience real love. After the glowing first weeks of married life, she realizes that she has mistaken a wish to be part of something new – for her love of Charles, and not only does the rosy future she had imagined for herself fade but she starts detesting the man who is endlessly patient and loving with her, because she thinks he never sees her true being. With this realization in place, she looks for happiness and real feelings elsewhere. In luxury, in other men, and in increasingly risky and uninhibited behavior. To put it simply, she lives fast and dies young.

To me it seemed that Gustave Flaubert’s creation ‘Emma Bovary’ is clinically depressed. She doesn’t suffer from ennui, temporary and easily diminished; she doesn’t have postpartum depression as her sorrow began before her birth, nor is there a clear event in the novel that originates her general mode. No, Emma Bovary is always on the look out for something real, some person or experience that will shake her out of her apathy towards the world. Apathy is truly the best way to describe her general state, as she starts off by being bored with her life as a married lady, as a pregnant mother to be, as a doctor’s wife; she dislikes the little community she is stuck in, just as much as she dislikes Charles and she has very little to do with her child. She is always searching for a new thrill, and finds one again and again – in a man called Léon, later in Rodolphe, then again to Léon. In between all this, her luxurious lifestyle escalates too. Increasingly, the things that at first gave her joy fades in importance and in pleasing her (again, symptom of depression). Soon, not even the men she has loved (or thinks she loved) mean anything to her, except for their beautified memory of the golden days. She is searching, as I’ve said, for deep emotional experiences and finds only temporary relief in the same – because her problems lie within, the only place she refuses to look or challenge. Thus, the whole book follows her spiraling, mentally, further and further down the rabbit hole.

Emma Bovary is a very interesting character because she is so unlikable. She does detestable things more than once and to so many people who don’t deserve it, her daughter for one, her husband for another. But in general, the novel itself deals with women’s’ ‘state of affairs’ in the 1800s in interesting ways. One thing that is often brought up in the book is the way women are so locked into domestic lives, how they have very little agency (or possibility for agency) in that they lack the resources to go on their own, live as they choose. At times, Emma herself points to the freedom men have – and how she seems often to resent the men this freedom that she wants and knows she can never have. She does her best in making this stand though, through not only deciding things for herself but also later, deciding things for others and damning what anyone else thinks or says. The lack of rights and resources for women is not only shown through Emma though, but through all women moving through the novel – from Charles mother, to the apothecary’s wife, there is in general a clear depiction of the “ideal” life for a woman of that time – family’s needs first, a doting mother, a capable housewife, and if she is young – pure, likes to please, goes along with the men’s decisions and takes his word as God’s. And Emma is constantly trampling all over the ideals and the norms, she serves as the contrast that highlights how constraining and suffocating the life of a woman in the 19th century could be, and often was. I’m not sure whether it was Flaubert’s intention to criticize and highlight this injustice, but he seemed to have been successful at it nevertheless.

If you’ve read Anna Karenina, you will likely see similarities between Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina herself – as they are at times incredibly similar in the way they think of the world, their chosen lovers, the way their relationships takes shape and unfolds, and how their internal life changes with time and ultimately ends in tragedy. Both books deal with women who think they seek one thing, but in truth need something quite different – and because of that, they are never truly happy for long. Emma however, is far meaner than Anna – and Charles much more of a door-mat than Anna’s husband, Alexey. I think both novels at first appear to be mainly love stories, and are in actuality more about the concept and institution of marriage – and of societal expectation regarding relationships, women, motherhood, agency, love, and life.

Madame Bovary is at times a frustrating book to read, because of its heroine’s mean streak, and Gustave Flaubert’s floral writing style is at times a bit of a stumbling block for the reader encountering it for the first time. And yet there is a lot to mull over in his bleakness, and the highs and lows of a woman so resistant to her housebound chains that she ends up bringing the house down with her.

About the Book
Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Translator: Lydia Davis
Year of Publication: 2012 (Originally 1856)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Genre: classics

Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“Did any one indeed exist, except I, the creator, who would believe, unless his senses convinced him, in the existence of the living monument of presumption and rash ignorance which I had let loose upon the world?”

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein celebrates the 200 year anniversary of its publication, this year. To say that this book has been an iconic piece of literature of the 19th century would be an understatement. The ‘science fiction’ novel of Victor Frankenstein who has discovered the secret of life and thus builds a living creature through science, which he later calls by derogatory terms only, is a classic tale of caution against scientific research and human’s constant wish for knowledge and greatness. It was as relevant in the Victorian’s great faith in science’s possibilities, as it is now in the 21st century of nuclear weapons, computer intelligence, and other technological advancements. Shelley seems to have wittingly avoided going into detail about the scientific experiments themselves, which has the result of focusing the novel on larger questions regarding ethics, responsibility, and the inherent dangers of science alongside its prospects for progress.

The creation of Frankenstein’s monster is, as I have previously pointed out, never actually described in detail in terms of the procedure that creates life. The general hints to the creation is mostly done in passing terms, like when Victor Frankenstein is contemplating the creation of a female mate for his wretch. He describes himself as having to undergo new research to create this female, so that in this creation there is something aside from the parts of the body that gives gender. In short, the gender is not a physical part of the creation – as sex – but as something closer akin to the soul, a different force that genders the body rather than a body part, deeming the process more complex than a repetition of the first creation. This in itself is interesting of course, as it shows an unusual exploration of gender and the female/male dichotomy, and what these categories actually mean, in a work from the 19th century where most other writers have no exploration of the kind nor do they often avoid the trope of the female as a defective male. Had this latter been the case, the creation of the partner to Frankenstein’s initial monster should’ve technically been easy, with the moral conundrum being a different matter.

The book itself seems to examine some of the fears of its contemporary context of science’s room for greatness, but equally for its evils. If knowledge can be used for good, certainly it could be used for evil, too? The dangers in growing knowledge and the lack of control in these scientific pursuits, is at the core of the novel and is strikingly shown through Frankenstein’s own turmoil as he works in a trance-like state to create his masterpiece – only to fall into despair as soon as ‘the wretch’ opened his eyes. The rest of the book follows him spiraling into further sorrows, anger, and hopelessness. Despite the monster’s appeals to Victor, in creating a female mate, with whom he could share this desolate life; Frankenstein at first gives in only to later break his promise of this second ‘monster’ and continues to blame the wretch for all the havoc he leaves behind in his loneliness, desperation, and rage. Time and time again, the question of blame and responsibility is at the center of Frankenstein’s musings and dialogues with fellow men and women, even in his conversations with the monster. He repeatedly shifts the blame to the monster for being so deformed (despite him having chosen the appearance of his monster himself), for being so deprived (despite not having given him anything to hold on to or live for, not even being able to look at him without disgust), and utterly distrustful (despite himself being the one who breaks a promise, he never gives the monster a chance to prove himself).

Frankenstein is only briefly aware of his own responsibility in the death that has followed his naive and thoughtless experiments. Most of the time he points his finger at others. If he isn’t blaming the monster, he is passing the duty to kill him to another – anyone but himself, which results in more deaths until his father’s demise finally seems to awaken his own role in the whole affair. This is interesting, as it seems to connect the dots of father and son, parent and child – like Frankenstein and his monster after all, most strongly resemble. The book explores human’s god complex, and warns against it in loud exclamations.

Another part of the book that is especially interesting is in fact the monster, and his development. At the time when he meets Frankenstein to ask for a mate, he is already excelling in speech. He is not only capable of expressing himself with eloquence and clearness, but he is – as he himself later notes in his tale, able to read and write. Most of these things he has learned through observing a human family, neighboring to where he for some time lived. By observing them, day and night, he teaches himself human language to a rapid degree. But even before he arrives in this village, right after he has left his birth place (the room in which Frankenstein has performed his experiments), he seems to have a natural instinct for understanding the world. There is clearly the idea of some knowledge and potential for learning being inborn, in the monster’s character. While he later learns by observing other humans, he spends his first period of life alone and in nature – and yet is able to distinctly perceive the world around him, hear the difference between one animal sound from the other, distinct nuts from berries. While he only later gains the names for the things he sees, or the eloquence to describe them, he narrates a clear basic understanding that seems to mirror this idea of learning being natural rather than taught.

Frankenstein’s unwillingness to deal with his own failings and take responsibility for his creation, his ideas of grandeur so utterly disappointed, the ‘monster’ being expected to be a monster and this working as a self-fulfilling prophecy as there is nothing else for him in this life; all of these things and more I have found a joy to pick apart and munch on for the second time, in this rereading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

About the Book
Title: Frankenstein
Author: Mary Shelley
Year of Publication: 1818
Genre: science-fiction, classics

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

“It was important to choose the exact device to drive Charles away. An imperfect magic, or one incorrectly used, might only bring more disaster upon our house.”

After the bad taste in my mouth that was Jackson’s debut novel, The Road Through the Wall, I finally decided to reach for her most hailed work: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. We are quickly introduced to two young women; Constance (28 years old), and Mary Katherine (18 years old). The two young ladies live in the Blackwood house in a small community where they are the gossip of the town. Together with their wheelchair-bound uncle, they mostly stay within the confines of the house and its garden – and Mary Katherine does the only regular trip outside to buy groceries. We soon learn that the rest of their family have all died from arsenic poisoning, during one of the family dinners. The uncle somehow made it through alive, but with ill health. The daughters of the family remained unscathed. Constance was suspected of putting arsenic in the sugar and hence killing her family. She was soon acquitted but the town is convinced she was responsible for their deaths. It is because of this lethal event that the three of the remaining Blackwoods live so isolated from the rest of the town.

The relationship between the three, especially the sisters, on the one hand and the rest of the town on the other resemble tensions portrayed in other works of Jackson. The way the community works as a whole, and fuel each other’s insanity, is very reminiscent of The Lottery – but in this book, this group dynamic and mob-mentality is somehow perfectly sustained over an entire novel’s span rather than a short story. Shirley Jackson writes most impressively about fear, and what this emotion of the human experience can make us do – or at the very least, inspire some of our lesser judgement. The fear in the household of the outside world shapes the world they build on their own, in safe confinements. The way the town avoid their house like the plague only to crash it with stones and laughter, too, seems a kind of high-strung rope finally snapping. There are so many interesting ways fear is explored in the individual and in the group, and how this fear can have a self-fulfilling quality.

Best of all in this book has to be Mary Katherine. As I say, she is described as eighteen right from the opening pages – but I had soon forgotten all about that tidbit of information. She often acts rashly, by impulse or emotion, she is very superstitious and has her own coping-mechanisms for ‘keeping safe’. Her mind often goes to “eliminating the threat” to deal with problems that is shaking their perfectly built world. She often thinks “I wish he/she was dead” – not in a vengeful, murderous kind of way but like a child, she thinks only of the present and what is standing in the way of her imminent happiness with Constance. She has the short shortsightedness of a child and she acts mostly by instinct. In some ways, she resembles the cat Jonas – her only friend aside from Constance. In all of her ways of coping with her fears and uncertainty, even possibly her realization that something is wrong; through the use of homemade talismans and breaking of mirrors, chanting magical words; we see a mind that is both more honest and more brutal than often seen in Jackson’s characters.

Honestly I feel like Mary Katherine is such an interesting character, I could see myself picking this up very soon again just to keep untangling what she is, how she came to think the way she does, and more about the reasoning of her sister in the way she has created their safe haven – their castle. This novel is incredibly interesting from the psychological standpoint; there is the tension of a thriller, but the focus of the book is never the crime (the deaths passed), nor is it really about a future crime – but rather always, at the forefront: fear, superstition, small town life, privacy, legacy, mental health, childhood, and so much more.

My reading of Shirley Jackson and how I perceive her books is admittedly partly shaped through my deep personal connection to her protagonists. I don’t think I’ve ever quite felt before or since, an author that ‘gets’ me as well as she does. In Mary Katherine’s behaviors and in Hangsaman’s Natalie, I have seen most distinctly mirrors of myself in literature. It has been both frightening and exhilarating. I feel as if I learn a little more about myself the deeper I dig into their heads, their rationalizations, their inner constructions of the world around them. I look forward to returning to this book in the near future, and further go on with Jackson’s bibliography in the next coming weeks.

About the Book
Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Year of Publication: 2014 (1962)
Publisher: Penguin (Modern Classics)
Genre: literary fiction