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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin #AudioBookReview

This historically engaging and relevant biography establishes Shirley Jackson as a towering figure in American literature and revives the life and work of a neglected master.

Still known to millions primarily as the author of  The Lottery, Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) has been curiously absent from the mainstream American literary canon. A genius of literary suspense and psychological horror, Jackson plumbed the cultural anxiety of postwar America more deeply than anyone. Now, biographer Ruth Franklin reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the author of such classics as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Placing Jackson within an American gothic tradition that stretches back to Hawthorne and Poe, Franklin demonstrates how her unique contribution to this genre came from her focus on “domestic horror.” Almost two decades before The Feminine Mystique ignited the women’s movement, Jackson’s stories and nonfiction chronicles were already exploring the exploitation and the desperate isolation of women, particularly married women, in American society. Franklin’s portrait of Jackson gives us “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly” (Neil Gaiman).

The increasingly prescient Jackson emerges as a ferociously talented, determined, and prodigiously creative writer in a time when it was unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession. A mother of four and the wife of the prominent New Yorker critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson lived a seemingly bucolic life in the New England town of North Bennington, Vermont. Yet, much like her stories, which channeled the occult while exploring the claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood, Jackson’s creative ascent was haunted by a darker side. As her career progressed, her marriage became more tenuous, her anxiety mounted, and she became addicted to amphetamines and tranquilizers. In sobering detail, Franklin insightfully examines the effects of Jackson’s California upbringing, in the shadow of a hypercritical mother, on her relationship with her husband, juxtaposing Hyman’s infidelities, domineering behavior, and professional jealousy with his unerring admiration for Jackson’s fiction, which he was convinced was among the most brilliant he had ever encountered.

Based on a wealth of previously undiscovered correspondence and dozens of new interviews, Shirley Jackson―an exploration of astonishing talent shaped by a damaging childhood and turbulent marriage―becomes the definitive biography of a generational avatar and an American literary giant.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life book cover

Title: Shirley Jackson – A Rather Haunted Life | Author: Ruth Franklin | Narrator: Bernadette Dunne | Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc. | Pub. Date: 09/27/2016 | Length: 19hrs 25min | ISBN13: 9780871403131 | Genre: Biography | Language: English | Source: Self-Published | Unstarred Review

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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life Review

This is a rather hard book to review. I really like Shirley Jackson’s books particularly The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And, for the most part, this was a very interesting biography of her life. It was fascinating to learn about her history, the history of her family, and her days in college. It’s very easy to see how her childhood and relationship with her mother influenced her works.

There is a lot of interesting information on her college friendship with a French girl, her ‘courtship’ with her husband, her children, and her writing. It sounds like she and her husband experienced prejudice, due to her husband being Jewish at a time when inter-marriages were frowned upon and many places outright banned Jewish people from entry. They also clashed with their neighbours quite a lot for being different in other ways – such as her not being the ‘typical’ faculty wife and also a rather nasty lawsuit involving one of her children being hit by a car.

That being said, this audiobook could have been a couple of hours shorter. We get her husband’s background in depth. Which is fine. It shows where he’s coming from and how that influences their relationship later. But there is also a lot of information about him that’s just unnecessary. Like his class list. I dozed off with the book going on about the class he was teaching (nothing to do with Jackson’s work) and woke up twenty minutes later with it talking about the same thing. I even rewound to make sure I didn’t miss a topic change. There was also far too much detail on all of their famous friends. Which, ok, they were friends. I don’t need their complete bios. It started to drown out the information solely on her work and family life.

It was really frustrating hearing so much extraneous detail on her husband because, frankly, he wasn’t interesting to me. In fact, he sounded like a pretty toxic husband who enjoyed rubbing his affairs in his wife’s face. He may have been supportive creatively but it doesn’t sound like he was supportive emotionally.

The details on the books she wrote were interesting but there was far too much detail on her contracts and payments, etc. I wanted to hear about the stories, where she got the idea, how the manuscripts changed. Not just a summation of the story and a few opinion observations thrown in.

The book just kind of ends with the death of Shirley Jackson and I think it would have been interesting if they had gone more into depth on the influence her books have had. Possibly some coverage of the movies, as well. At least The Haunting ones.

I just feel like it could have been more straightforward if a lot of the extra stuff had been trimmed out. Bernadette Dunne was a perfect choice as a narrator. It feels like she’s Jackson’s ‘voice’. It kind of has the unintentional effect of making the quotes sound mildly snarky but I loved it.

All in all, I do recommend it but it might be easier to read it as a physical book so you can skip over the stuff you don’t want.

You can find Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life via its Goodreads link or, if you’d like to help support literacy programs, Better World Books

Published inNon-fic Genre Related

One Comment

  1. I was just considering the audio book, which is not my preferred method of consuming books, but was currently the only copy not on hold from the library. Sounds like I might want a more physical version!

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