“She murdered her entire family!”

5180ubrqqzlBooks on Tap read  We Have Always Lived in the Castle   by Shirley Jackson at  Champion Brewery on January 5. Starting at the ending, most attendees didn’t care for the novella. A few had read Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” but the majority had not read any of her works, especially her memoirs of raising her family. The revelation of the murderer at the end was not a surprise to half the readers and the other half agreed that it was obvious upon a re-read. A few readers were enthusiastic about the spooky tone while others failed to find a moral in the story. However, after learning more about Jackson’s own agoraphobia and ostracization, many readers appreciated the symbolism more.

And symbolism abounds. Taking her source material from a real-life crime in England, Jackson transposed the setting to her small-town Vermont and based the the sister protagonists on her own daughters’ characters. Indeed, the fictional sisters read like two sides of the same person. Child-like 18-year-old Mericat, her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian live isolated in a grand house outside of town. Dogged by rumors that Constance poisoned her parents, brother and Julian’s wife, the trio seldom receive visitors and Mericat is the only one to leave the grounds. Variously teased and shunned by the townsfolk, she resorts to  magical thinking and rituals to defend her property. Uncle Julian is supposedly working on a family history but repeatedly asks Constance if his memories are true. Along comes cousin Charles, whom the reader and Uncle Julian know is bad news, upending Mericats rituals and routines  and thawing Constance. Mericat’s reaction to Charles tightens the underlying tension until the house burns down (debatably Mericat’s fault) and the fire chief implicitly gives the gathered townspeople permission to ransack the once forbidden house. While the townspeople then react by bringing food and other gifts to the sisters, Mericat manifests their psychological barriers by enclosing them in the kitchen and blacking out the windows. The futility of their hiding and rituals is exposed by rain pouring into the kitchen and neighbors, formerly kept at bay, pouring onto the footpath along the house. One reader pointed out that this was Mericat’s use of the feminine power available to her, versus the masculine power of Charles. Another thought the towns’ reaction was analogous to society’s fear of young women’s potential and the impulse to cage them. We all discussed the fine line Mericat rode between insanity and eccentricity, the distancing her peculiarities forced on the narrative and  how much better the story would have been as a Young Adult movie franchise.

Finally, we wish founding member Emily best of luck in the new Vermont chapter of her life!

More Information:
About the author
Author biography
Other works
Joyce Carol Oates on Jackson in the New York Review of Books
Upcoming film adaptation
Previous stage adaptations

Books on Tap Information:

Help us choose upcoming titles by adding to this list.

Previous titles

Geographical Noir

Pick a location, any location – and then read a collection of short stories set there.

Baltimore Noir edited by Laura Lippman


Beirut Noir
edited by Iman Humaydan


Boston Noir
edited by Dennis Lehane


Brooklyn Noir
edited by Tim McLoughlin


Buffalo Noir
edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes


Haiti Noir
edited by Edwidge Danticat


Manhattan Noir
edited by Lawrence Block


Marseille Noir edited by Cédric Fabre


Memphis Noir edited by Laureen Cantwell and Leonard Gill


New Jersey Noir edited by Joyce Carol Oates


New Orleans Noir edited by Julie Smith


Tel Aviv Noir
edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron

“Takes longer to read than the events depicted.”

the20dinner20-20finalBooks on Tap read The Dinner by Herman Koch at Champion Brewery on November 4.  A suspenseful novel told over the course of one evening from a single perspective by an unreliable narrator, it examines racism, mental health, parental influence, politics, self-deception and the self-satisfaction of the bourgeoisie. Paul (former history teacher), along with his wife Claire, meet his brother Serge (a politician under consideration for prime minister) and wife Babette for dinner in Amsterdam. The couples each have a teenage son whose crime has been captured on a security camera and is now online, although neither teen has been identified. Both sets of parents must now decided on a public course of action.

Paul’s unreliability as a narrator launched our discussion of the likeability of characters. Some readers found it hard to care because this family was so off-putting. However, others thought that the issues raised rendered likeability irrelevant.  Writing the novel as satire, Koch pushed the characters and situations so far past plausibility and reality to force the readers to examine their culpability in the ethical quandaries. The food descriptions, instead of dull interruptions, are signifiers of the characters pretensions, which may have been more original when the book was published in 2009.

Paul’s mental state colors the reader’s perception of events and motive. Paul claims to have been diagnosed with a mental illness that could have been passed to his teenage son, but refuses to read the results, further turning his back on reality. Would that diagnosis matter as much as the amoral environment in which Paul and Claire have raised him? Would Paul have taught him to be a bully regardless? Claire is just as willing to rationalize his brutal behavior and it is unclear if she is a Lady Macbeth-figure or if events truly spiral out of her control. Teenage boys can do terrible things in small groups without considering the consequences – Serge’s son goes along with Paul’s despite not being raised by a psychopath. As far as we know: the entire story could be a figment of Paul’s delusions, Serge may not be the ethical politician who offers to step down, Claire may not have bashed a glass into Serge’s face.

Koch’s craft and skill as a writer was respected. The ambiguity builds tension for the slow reveals, which kept some readers engaged during otherwise boring descriptions of the meal. We wondered to whom the Paul is relating his account and if Koch believes that his readers share Paul’s delusions (albeit on a smaller scale). A few book club members read the book twice, appreciating it more the second time, especially on audio, where any boring bits passed by faster. In all, The Dinner was a taut tale of (self) deception and responsibility.

More Information:
Author biography
Author interview
Other works

Defending Jacob by William Landay
We Need to Talk about Kevin by  Lionel Shriver
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Siracusa by Delia Ephron
The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza

Books on Tap Information:
Help us choose upcoming titles by adding to this list.

Previous titles

Upcoming titles:
December 1:  “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote (pdf version)