Top positive review
"What Is Life?"
Reviewed in the United States on May 21, 2017
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) is perhaps best known today as the author of “The Lottery,” a 1948 work regarded as among American Literature’s finest short stories. Written in 1958, THE SUNDIAL is essentially the story of a group of people living in a house that gradually cuts them off from the larger world—a general theme Jackson continues to develop in her later masterpieces THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (1959) and WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE (1962.) This particular group of people is the Halloran family, and the house in which they live is Halloran House, an oppressively elaborate estate on the outskirts of a drab village. The novel begins after the suspicious death of Lionel Halloran, when his mother Orianna takes control of the property. Orianna immediately decides that most of the family living in the house will be expelled—but not long after, elderly Aunt Fanny has a vision of her dead father, who constructed the house. He tells her that the world will shortly come to an end, and only those actually living in Halloran House will be spared.
Although the family has a mixed reaction to Fanny’s vision, Orianna rescinds her eviction notices, and as the novel progresses she brings in four more women and another man to round out the survival party. The final group consists of nine women and three men, one man an invalid, the other two distinctly virile. Aunt Fanny’s visions of her late father continue, and through sessions of mirror-gazing the group becomes convinced that the end of the world is indeed at hand. As the date approaches, Orianna tightens her authority, making it clear that she, and only she, will rule over the survivors.
Jackson always has a wicked sense of humor, and this novel presents it in a particularly extreme way: the way the characters interact and speak to each other is often jaw-dropping, and laughter is the only possible response. Jackson was also famous for creating tensions and then refusing to resolve them—readers are usually much more disturbed by what she implies than anything she actively describes—and THE SUNDIAL is no exception, a work that begins and ends with suspicious deaths that are never fully explained and which concludes in a very open-ended way. But in this instance, Jackson’s refusal to explain will exceed the tolerance of most readers. I think THE SUNDIAL is so open-ended that it will leave most readers with a sense of annoyance, with the feeling that Jackson has taken you upstairs and then suddenly left you there to find your way out on your own. If you’ve never read her works, begin with THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED AT THE CASTLE, and then, you are interested in their antecedents, back up to read THE SUNDIAL. But don’t begin with it.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
In Memory of Rick Amos