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Strange and Addictive,
This review is from: Hangsaman (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
Shirley Jackson always had the ability to portray a dark sense of unease in her work. In Hangsaman, that sense of the odd, the baffling and the out of kilter is turned up a notch, becoming if anything even more apparent than in her later, better-known novels such as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The other quality Jackson always possessed in spades was the ability to write beautifully balanced prose and Hangsaman shows the elegance of her writing-style to full effect. In places the book positively purrs like a well-fed cat curled by the fireside, or a well-tuned Rolls on an open road.
Natalie Waite, the central character, is the daughter of a pompous author who isn't quite the great thinker and stylist he would like to believe. Even more problematic for Natalie her mother is terribly neurotic and always haunted by the life she might have lived had marriage and drudgery not intervened. Natalie's brother, very sensibly, keeps his distance from his parents and attempts to do his own thing, quietly and beyond the dead-hand reach of his parents. Natalie is perhaps less fortunate. Her mother ropes her in with all the preparations for her father's parties when various local worthies are invited to dine, and her father, when not entertaining, sets her curious writing tasks so he can check on the progress of her prose. Natalie, one suspects, isn't having the most comfortable of childhoods. Jackson always keeps the main events in Hangsaman slightly opaque but there is a strong suggestion one of her father's friends forces himself on Natalie after one too many drinks. What had been a strange childhood becomes, afterwards, positively a broken and disturbed one.
The book follows Natalie to college where she runs the gauntlet of prettier, spoilt girls forcing their brand of weird humour onto their less attractive, and often more intelligent counterparts. Natalie suffers the strange rituals of female college life; not quite fitting in and yet being clever enough to avoid the worst potential embarrassments. She befriends the wife - scarcely any older than she is - of her English teacher and then finds herself unintentionally aiding his affair with one of her friends (either Vicki or Anne, we never quite know which but both are beautiful, spoilt and trying it on for all they're worth); and then she meets Tony, who becomes a new and very odd friend indeed from which point on Natalie's world - real or imagined - becomes disturbingly off-balance.
Hangsaman is a brilliant but odd book (especially in its last third). There's a sense that 'reality' as it really is (if there is such a thing) and 'reality' as perceived through Natalie's increasingly disturbed consciousness do not quite match up. The prose is gorgeous, the characters fascinating and the situations by turn comic, baffling and disturbing. Quite what it all adds up to at the end of the day, however, is a difficult question to answer. There is something very dark at its heart, but also something profound, elusive and moving. It's different - very different - but it rewards the effort required to untangle its elusive strands. It's probably not a book for everyone but personally, well, I absolutely loved it.