This is only the third novel by Jackson, and yet it clearly shows her incredible skill in building atmosphere. A skill that I haven’t seen matched yet. The way she slightly twists the ordinary to make it unnerving, slightly creepy to all the way scary and then back again, as if nothing happened, this is pure mastery. And while The Bird’s Nest may not be a match to The Haunting of the Hill House or We Have Always Lived in a Castle it already shows the promise and direction Jackson’s writing would take.
Shirley Jackson’s writing is a discovery for me. Her books weren’t included as part of the curriculum in Polish schools when I attended them, so I only came across her writing through the amazing book blogging community, while living in London. And for that, I will be forever grateful. Apart from her two most famous novels, I’ve also read a short-story collection Dark Tales, a somewhat autobiographical Life Among the Savages, and my favorite mixed bag of Let Me Tell You.
The Bird’s Nest accidentally is also the name of a local pub we used frequently visited in Deptford, so it was a nice tie-in. Our main character here is Elizabeth Richmond. Elizabeth could not be more boring if she tried. Being orphaned she lives with her Aunt Morgen, her mother’s sister. She works in a museum, as a clerk, and leads a life of little interest or social interaction, but haunted by endless headaches and backaches. Until one day, as the construction works start on a dilapidated museum building, Elizabeth receives a menacing letter. Her reaction to it is interesting, for she is not unnerved or scared, she is thrilled that someone actually cared about her enough to write her and she hides the letter with her other cherished possessions.
I thought I’d put it in early just so you have the time to stop reading.
Elizabeth’s behavior starts becoming erratic. As it escalates her aunt gets worried and after an outburst at a friend’s house, which Elizabeth denies happened, Aunt Morgen eventually takes her to a doctor.
Doctor Wright gets to tell us parts of the story in his case notes. We get to know his terror on realizing that he’s working not only with Elizabeth but also Beth, Betsy and eventually Bess. Each of them has a different character, and each is intent upon gaining dominance over the others. The doctor, of course, has his favorites and mouthy Betsy is not one of them, nonetheless, his goal is to piece them all together via hypnosis.
We can trace the terror of the doctor on discovering the complexity of the case that landed on his desk. But equally, we feel the despair and terror of Elizabeth and her ‘sisters’ as none of them fully knows what is going on. As reality unravels around them they try to create one of their own. Including a mad run to New York in an attempt to find her mother.
Jackson skillfully builds the personalities to a point when we are able to recognize them by the first few words. It is also interesting how helpless the doctor becomes. And let’s not forget Aunt Morgen, a fascinating supporting character, developed in a wonderful way. When Jackson spins her tale we feel the world around us getting slightly off-kilter. Suddenly Elizabeth’s ‘sister’ may not be so odd at all, but just a coping mechanism. And as the world right’s itself we have a tiny bit less faith in its solidity around us.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska