Hangsaman. Hardcover – January 1, 1951
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Top reviews from the United States
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The most amazing thing about HANGSAMAN is that, on the surface, nothing happens. A girl, Natalie, attends a dinner party where she is possibly assaulted, starts college, drinks a lot of martinis with professors, and goes on long, thought-addled walks. This doesn't even sound like a story worth reading, and that's where Jackson works some voodoo. She manages to create a dense atmosphere of isolation that permeates the spaces between the non-events. Even the trauma that triggers Natalie's increasingly strange psychological break doesn't "happen" in the usual sense of events unfolding on a page. Instead, Jackson gives the reader access to only the reverberations of the event. This is either a masterful literary technique, or dark magic, and I'm placing bets on the latter.
The story received through the twisted and unreliable narrator who recites Natalie's thoughts is fascinating, in the way a fish hook piercing flesh is sickly fascinating. Natalie doesn't fit in, and the details of life in an all-girls dorm is unimpeachable, including the strange spate of random thefts. Several girls report being slapped awake in the middle of the night, but are too startled to identify the culprit. Is it Natalie, slapping and stealing? There are plenty of clues it probably, maybe is - but HANGSAMAN is not a novel of absolutes. Jackson litters the work with half-hints I read with the excitement of discovering something amazingly rare in a pile of moldering leaves. For example, Natalie writes gut-wrenching letters home to her father, but the missives may or may not have been intercepted by her mother. Natalie may or may not be in a sexual relationship with a girl in the dorm, or Natalie may or may not "simply" have an alternate personality brought on by the trauma that we never see directly.
The narrator is a wily one, and it is unclear where Natalie ends and the narrator begins. The two bleed into one another until you cannot distinguish your vantage within the story. This is part of Jackson's dark magic: she gives you direct access to the experience of a deeply disturbed mind, but without the gimmicky feel of first person. Indeed, having an "I" in HANGSAMAN would change the texture of the work, damage it irreparably. Natalie's entire problem is she has no idea who she is, and just as she was on the cusp of discovery, trauma knocked her from being a bit overly imaginative into being batshit crazy. Natalie has no "I," and Jackson wisely steers clear of trying to force one. Jackson leverages the strange, blended narrative persona to excellent effect right from the opening scenes. A detective "interrogates" Natalie… in her mind. It is only on a second (or third) read that it sinks in that the exchange between Natalie and her imaginary detective is so very, very strange because the detective is prescient. His questions can be applied to multiple situations that arise throughout the novel, and it is illuminating that at the time the questions are shared with the reader, they are entirely out of context. In some sense, it feels like Natalie's future self (the narrator?) is interjecting thoughts back into the past. It exacerbates the disorientation HANGSAMAN inspires, and it resonates with the strange psychology in us all.
HANGSAMAN is a bizarre, nightmare trance. I came up from reading it feeling deeply affected, infected. The prose warped my mind. I found myself thinking like the narrator reporting Natalie's musings; it was disturbing. HANGSAMAN is not a book for anyone on the brink of a mental breakdown. It is a dangerous beast. It will swallow you whole. It is frightfully unique, and one of the most masterful novels I've experienced.
Top reviews from other countries
Natalie Waite lives with her parents and brother (as Jackson did herself). Jackson skilfully subverts the family dynamic and some of the scenes involving her father’s lectures, or mother’s neediness, are difficult to read and yet, often, darkly funny. Something very dark happens to Natalie before she goes to college, but, as with so much in this novel, you are unsure of the true facts.
At college, Natalie fails to fit in and is viewed as odd and strange. Isolated and alone, she befriends the young wife of her English teacher. Previously a student, Elizabeth Langdon drinks too much and dislikes her husband’s students visiting and openly flirting with him. Here, you can really feel Jackson’s pen aiming at her husband. The two students, Vicki and Anne, are truly vicious and cause the new Mrs Langdon a great deal of unhappiness. Meanwhile, both her husband, and Natalie’s father, demonstrate how much the men in Natalie’s life like to talk at her, but refuse, stubbornly, to hear what she is saying.
While Jackson lived at Bennington, it is said she was partially inspired by the story of Paula Jean Weldens disappearance in 1946 and also wrote a story linked to this, “The Missing Girl,” which I would like to read, to compare. There is also a true crime book about the case available: “Clueless in New England: the unsolved disappearances of Paula Welden, Connie Smith and Katherine Hull”, by Michael C. Dooling.
As events in this novel escalate, things go missing from the girls dorm rooms, and Natalie meets a new friend, the rather spooky, Tony. However, it is difficult to know what is real and what is imagined, as you have a true sense of impending doom. This may not be the best of Jackson’s noels, but it is certainly worth reading.
Jackson's style is unlike anything else I have read. She was clearly a clever and troubled woman. It can become irritating at times and it's one of those books which leaves you, at the end, wondering what on earth happened, so can be frustrating.
There is already an excellent review giving a general account of the content, which says much without giving away anything that might weaken the reader’s experience of the book. I shall not rehearse that here, but confine myself to offering a few personal observations. Throughout we inhabit the mind of the strange Natalie, yet at the same time we are made keenly aware of two workaday worlds – the Waite
home and the College for the affluent – where very much we are in the world of social reality. Both threaten to anchor Natalie down in what to her is dull reality, to prevent her escape into that liberating world of the creative imagination that the final section of the book brings so dramatically to life. Things are never quite that simple and therein lies much of the fascination and compelling challenge of the book. Often it is difficult to be sure how far we are in the world of reality and how far caught up in Natalie’s wilder reaches of consciousness.
Perhaps the book lacks the focused coherence of Jackson’s last novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, but it still seems to me to be quite remarkable and if nothing else a psychological thriller of the highest order. I suspect that Shirley Jackson is less widely read than she deserves, at least on this side of the Atlantic. This is a pity because she is possessed of a highly distinctive and original talent.