Fictional newlyweds spend a year living with the author Shirley Jackson in this brooding novel.
Jackson, largely remembered as the author of macabre horror stories such as “The Lottery,” was married to Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic who taught folklore at Bennington College. The couple lived just off campus in a sprawling house filled with books and cats and kids, and it’s here that Fred and Rose Nemser come to stay in 1964. Fred, a graduate student, has been hired as Stanley’s teaching assistant. While their husbands are occupied with adoring undergrads, a tentative camaraderie strikes up between Shirley and Rose, our narrator. The two women could not be more different. Meek Rose, pregnant at just 19, is in flight from a grimy childhood filled with secrets. Shirley, “a mountain of a woman,” is mercurial, droll and possessed of uncanny abilities. “I know what cats think,” she tells Rose, whose thoughts she also seems able to invade. No wonder the locals think she’s a witch. Yet, as Rose discovers, Shirley is prey to demons of an altogether less supernatural nature, too. Everyone at the house drinks into the night, but she pops pills as well; and though she’s accustomed to it, Stanley’s philandering evidently pains her. When Rose learns of a student who went missing 18 years earlier, she’s unable to resist the notion that Shirley had something to do with it. Merrell (Creative Writing and Literature/Stony Brook; A Member of the Family, 2000, etc.) is no thriller writer, but this unsolved mystery stokes an atmosphere of quiet menace. Her decision to blend fact and fiction adds to a lingering sense of uncertainty, with set pieces—including a cameo for Bernard Malamud—providing comic relief.
A sidelong portrait of a category-defying writer dovetails surprisingly snugly with the drama of one young woman’s coming-of-age.