Title: The Road Through the Wall
Author: Shirley Jackson
Published: 2013, Penguin Classics (Originally published 1948)
Shirley Jackson’s first novel may not have the same level of sublime terror found in her more well-known classic works, but this is still a fantastic tale of a suspicious, occasionally malicious community going about their daily lives on Pepper Street, California.
A group of white families of varying social and cultural backgrounds all live here in differently shaped and coloured houses, and whilst their lives are entwined together in the form of afternoon tea meetings, childrens’ games and the shared reverence of the slighty-better-off community beyond the titular wall, there is still a strong sense of isolation and deliberate alienation emanating from each of the different households. The wall that runs across the end of Pepper Street is to be demolished to make way for new housing developments, and this is the event around which much of the story takes place.
As with lot of Jackson’s other short fiction, the focus here is on the underlying, sometimes poisonous attitudes of seemingly normal everyday life. Jackson’s seemingly friendly, wholesome families often harbour dark, hidden desires and prohibitive morals and ideals, which ultimately cause serious rifts between groups and individuals, frequently leading to disaster. The climax of the book is shocking, but if you’ve not read this before, take my advice and avoid reading the blurb on the back of the Penguin Classics edition as it gives away a pretty big part of the last section of the novel.
The families on Pepper Street partially represent the various cultures of 1930s America – there is a catholic family of implied Irish descent, a Jewish family, an upper-class family and a lower-class family. There is the gentle spinster, as well as another elderly single woman who is thought of as a kind of demented witch by the neighbourhood children. This microcosm of white America allows Jackson to highlight the varying prejudices and phobias of the time, and she does it very well – almost to the point of making the reader uncomfortable.
Initially, I felt as though I wouldn’t engage as much with this book as I did with The Haunting of Hill House, for example. The way in which Jackson establishes the street and its inhabitants was a kind of clinical, as if she wanted to just get a list of the names of the family members and the location of their houses out of the way quickly. I almost felt like I wanted to draw a map of Pepper Street, though I never got round to it (but I know some other readers did!). This isn’t so much of a criticism but I do think that perhaps the story would have worked just as well without this “Pepper Street primer”.
This comes highly recommended if you are already a fan of Jackson’s style. I’d recommend it to newcomers to Jackson also, but I can understand how this might leave some readers feeling flat if it’s their first experience with the author. I’m hesitant to say it was an enjoyable read, as the story was filled with menace and dread, but it was everything I’ve come to expect from Jackson, and it’s definitely worth picking up if it sounds like your kind of thing.