Book review: Shirley – a novel

Saturday, August 30, 2014 Permalink

I have to confess I hadn’t heard of American author Shirley Jackson before I read this novel, which is loosely biographical, although had heard of the movie(s) – The Haunting – based on her novel The Haunting of Hill House.

Not a lot was revealed in the blurb about this book – so I’m not entirely sure why I requested it, other than the fact it sounded intriguing.

But I’m really glad I did.

Shirley – a novel  however, is really hard to describe. Although I suspect it was mostly the writing and language which hypnotised me into submission, the slow creaking unfolding story held its own.

A young couple – not-yet tenured college assistant professor (Fred) and his young pregnant bride (and former student), Rose – move to North Bennington, Vermont so Fred can take a job at Bennington College with renowned literary critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman.

shirleyStanley is married to famous horror / mystery writer Shirley Jackson – who’s a bit of an enigma – particularly to the local townsfolk. Sadly her eccentric behaviour and slightly sociopathic tendencies don’t help.

But Stanley and Shirley generously offer to help ease the young couple’s financial burden by allowing them to stay with them in their large ageing property (which reminds Rose of Shirley’s famed novel, The Haunting of Hill House).

Rose finds herself drawn to Shirley and her work. She takes on many of the household duties allowing Shirley to focus on her writing, but Rose is bewitched by her older companion and the house itself. Young and unworldly Rose sees in Shirley the mother she never really had but desired. And Stanley tells Rose she’s good for Shirley – the author seeming more contented and relaxed than she’s been in ages.

There’s a constant sense of unease however, as Shirley’s physical and emotional health issues simmer just beneath the surface and she shares with Rose stories of her husband’s infidelity. Although Shirley seems confident that Stanley’s dalliances are merely a distraction (and that only she is his intellectual equal), she’s obviously emotionally fragile and prone to jealousy.

Rose is also intrigued by the disappearance of a young college student several years before – something Shirley and Stanley are reluctant to discuss.

“Shirley lied as a professional duty. But of course she somehow created truth. She chose the best side of the story, shaped and polished it, not so it was perfect, but so it was real.”

Like I said, it’s really REALLY hard to describe the essence of this novel. I saw it labelled a psychological thriller, but definitely don’t agree. It’s not an ‘OMG-page-turner’. Rather it’s melodic and quietly addictive.

On one hand, it’s really (just) about a year in someone’s life. But it’s also about so much more than that. And not just love, relationships, family and fidelity.

Rose constantly feels inadequate during conversations between Shirley, Stanley and Fred. And yet she doesn’t realise she always holds her own with the very cerebral Shirley, who would most certainly not suffer a fool gladly.

“Don’t expect fulfilment to seek you out. It won’t find you if you hide up there in the back bedroom, waiting. If you want to be someone, do something…. Find what you love. Go out into the world and do it.”

And despite her naivety when Shirley tries to shock her with tales of witchcraft and betrayal, rather than feel frightened, Rose is intrigued, and eager for more. Their relationship is indeed an interesting one.

Shirley – a novel  is also about the roles we play (and we believe we play) in the lives of others. And the novel possibly eventually boils down to: the impact (or otherwise) people can have on our lives – even if their time with us is fleeting. And of course – it’s about the impact we ALLOW others to have on our lives.

I’ve spoken briefly about my love of Anita Brookner’s work. She speaks very eloquently about the human condition – something I think author Susan Scarf Merrell also achieves in this novel.

“In the absence of the extraordinary, we become excessively concerned with the mundane.”

I had to google Shirley Jackson after reading the novel. I don’t think I’ll go out and buy her books, but I’m always happy to learn. Unlike Shirley, Stanley, Fred and Rose, I’m far from an intellectual. I’m well-read in that I’ve read a lot of novels, but any literary types would most certainly scoff at my taste and gag at the books on my bookshelf. However, I actually feel confident enough in my own intellect and taste that I really don’t care.

Non-fiction lovers would probably appreciate this book as I gather the biographical information about Shirley and Stanley is pretty accurate. As a hater of non-fiction I enjoyed the mish-mash of fact and fiction (faction). The book is beautifully written and surprisingly mesmerising.

Shirley – a novel  by Susan Scarf Merrell was published by Blue Rider Press (Penguin US) in June 2014 and is now available.

I received a copy of this book for review purposes from the publisher. 

  • rivercityreading
    September 1, 2014

    I was already interested in this, mostly because I love novels that center around the lives of writers, but I think you totally sold me with the “quietly addictive” description!

    • Debbish
      September 1, 2014

      Oh I’m glad cos it definitely is! I hope you enjoy it.

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