The story of a young woman going to live in an unfamiliar home and becoming captivated by the presence (or absence) of another woman is nothing new, but in Shirley: A Novel – part fairy tale, part homage – Susan Scarf Merrell takes this idea and makes it into something different.
From early in the novel, the voice of 19-year-old Rose recalls that of the never-named narrator of Rebecca: young, naive, passive, at times irritatingly so, though this does not stop the reader rooting for her. The Rebecca connection is later alluded to, with Rose referred to as the child bride. However, there is a gentleness here which is not found in Du Maurier’s novel, a lightness of prose which makes the novel even at its darkest moments seem fresh. Dragonflies blink at windows, dust bunnies twirl and the house itself lives and tell stories.
Rose Nemser, young, pregnant and frightened, accompanies her husband Fred, a young academic, to the home of the writer Shirley Jackson and her husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman. While Fred and Stanley connect in conversations about literature, critical theory and folklore, Rose and Shirley become friends instinctively, through a temporary magic, a mutual fascination. “I’m a witch,” Shirley states having seen Rose’s pregnancy long before the child is visible, and Rose is entranced.
The women bond over shared domestic tasks, in which Rose finds comfort – she wants to be of use more than anything. Yet alongside this domesticity is talk of spells, witchcraft, the Devil and writing – “the Devil’s work,” says Shirley, though Rose is eager to try it, later writing in Shirley’s voice – an act not of theft, but of tribute.
The ideals and freedom of the mid-1960s tangle in the novel with references to the writing of Jackson and her contemporaries Roth, Bellow and Malamud, who makes a brief unflattering appearance. The insouciant freedom of the students on the campus where Fred and Stanley teach is a cause of envy to Rose, but she is gifted a different education, reading and loving Shirley’s stories. I found myself also seeking them out, reading them alongside Rose, and feeling their dark clutches, understanding the fascination which compelled Scarf Merrell to build a novel around Shirley Jackson.
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