Review: Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

hangsaman.jpgThe Premise: Natalie is a bored 17 year old with an unbearably pretentious father. She goes to college (to get away from him) and meets some more pretentious people. Oh, and she has imaginary conversations with a detective.

Thoughts: I was not quite prepared for how weird Hangsaman was going to be. I have decided that I love Shirley Jackson, having read and enjoyed We Have Always Lived In the Castle (how original of me, when literally everyone in the world loves that book) and The Haunting of Hill House, as well as her short stories, so I’ve made it my aim to read all her books this year. There’s not a clear horror element in Hangsaman, which sets it apart from the two novels I’ve mentioned, although the questionable state of Natalie’s mental equilibrium draws obvious comparisons with Merricat (I have been thinking recently, wouldn’t this be the best name for an actual cat?) and the character in Hill House whose name I have sadly forgotten. Hill House also had that weird sense of never quite letting the reader know what was actually happening, and Hangsaman relies on that to confuse you too.

In the sense of its bored protagonist limited by society’s expectations, Hangsaman reminded me of Plath’s The Bell Jar, particularly as Natalie tries to navigate a near-exclusively female society at college; I’ve also recently read Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection, Feminine Gospels, and there’s a section about the general stress of being around lots of girls that reminded me of her poem The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High. The college experience is presented in an interesting way, particularly through the character of Elizabeth, married to her professor before she even got to graduate and swiftly descending into depression and alcoholism; Hangsaman was published in 1951, when women’s choices were limited and, obviously, still very much proscribed, and I think part of Natalie’s dwindling grip on reality can be read as a manifestation of her frustration with that. Just to add to the massive list of things with which I am comparing this book, it also reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper in that sense.

It was quite confusing to read, particularly in the sections where it’s hard to tell what’s “really” happening, but Hangsaman is witty too; Natalie receives the most horrifically pompous but hilarious letters from her writer father, who is far too busy correcting her use of split infinitives to notice that there’s something not quite right with his daughter. Perhaps Jackson uses this to demonstrate that style was all that was required of women in Natalie’s position at the time, and so nobody would notice her general ennui. Natalie’s the opposite of Merricat’s manic energy in that sense. I may write some fan fiction about the two of them going for a cocktail.

In Conclusion: Hangsaman has made me even more fascinated by Shirley Jackson. I really enjoy how weird her books are, as well as the economical yet entrancing way in which she writes. I’ll be filling in the gaps in my reading of her short stories next, before smuggling the rest of her novels into my book room without my husband noticing and crying, “have you heard of libraries, woman?”

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