Merricat (Mary Katherine Blackwood) lives with her sister Constance and ailing uncle Julian in a massive house isolated from the rest of the village. The rest of her family perished six years before and since then Constance has not ventured outside the house garden.
It is Merricat’s task to go shopping in the village, a task that she detests. People in the village hate Constance and Merricat and happily show their feelings (turning into violent animals in one scary scene). Constance cooks for the family and uncle Julian reminisces about the past a lot, trying to get his head around what happened. They have few guests that come regularly, their visits almost a kind of ritual. One day the routine of daily life is disturbed by the appearance of cousin Charles. Charles invites himself to stay longer and his presence throws everything off balance.
I won’t go into more details of the plot, not to spoil it for you, but also because it’s not the plot that is the main strength of this book, it is atmosphere and Merricat.
Merricat narrates the story, she is 18 years old, but sometimes I got the impression she is younger, maybe because of her isolation. She can be spiteful and cruel, but she loves her sister endlessly and always tries to be kinder to her uncle. She feels it is her responsibility to protect the house with magic, she uses words and hidden objects as totems that protect the perimeter of the house and yet Charles is able to come in. She hates him at first sight and the feeling is definitely reciprocated. Charles thinks Merricat is spoiled and that her behavior harms Constance, who should go back to leading a life outside of the house. Merricat tries to fight Charles with her magic, bringing the conflict to its climax.
Constance, on the other hand, is the kind heart of the house. The kitchen is her kingdom, she makes a lot of preserves as if she is trying to preserve life. Food plays a special role in the book as if it’s another kind of magic, specific to Constance. She cares about Merricat and uncle Julian, but also feel guilty that she has done something wrong to bring the family to where it is now. To fix it she is willing to follow Charles’ advice to go out in the world and marry him.
This is a short book, but it is very atmospheric, it can be cheerful, creepy, scary, but also funny in a dark way, like when uncle Julian says:
“Charles is intrepid. Your cooking, although it is of a very high standard indeed, has certain disadvantages.”
The language is very sensual focused on smells, tastes, textures. I ended up associating the book with a cinnamon cookie, sweet, but not completely, full of smell and flavor. It has been a great read, one that transported me completely into a different reality of the dusty, creaking old house, with its isolated inhabitants.
Does it happen to you to associate a book with a certain color/sounds/taste?