Review: Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman

Contains spoilers

“Reading Hangsaman is like entering a dark labyrinth, only to discover that you have always been it, and that the novel has merely awakened you to this fact, something you have tried all your life to forget.”…

“Natalie is lonely at school. And because of who she is, and because of what kind of novel this is, her loneliness is terrifying. The dangerous power of awareness, quotidian social brutality, loneliness, and existential fear propel Hangsaman toward the edge of becoming a psychological thriller” – Francine Prose

This book, more than any of Shirley’s other books, I had no preconceived notions of. I don’t know anyone who’s read it, I’ve never read anyone’s thoughts on it, I barely even knew it existed until I was going from bookstore to bookstore in Sydney looking for a shop that actually stocked her work. So it was already shrouded in mystery.

I spent a long time trying to figure out what this was actually about, as I was reading it. Natalie Waite, a seventeen year old girl, is starting college for the first time. She has two parents – a teary housewife for a mother and a pretentious writer for a father – and an apathetic brother, all of whom she doesn’t seem to really connect with at all. With nothing to tether her to a concept of “home”, she’s optimistic about starting a new life at the college, but finds it difficult to make friends and instead finds herself at artificial, tension-laden gatherings with one of her tutors, his young wife Elizabeth, and two of Elizabeth’s friends, one of whom the tutor might be having an affair with.

It seems pretty straightforward at this point, a coming-of-age story, but… that’s not what it is. At the beginning of the novel, it’s implied that Natalie was raped or assaulted by a man at one of her father’s garden parties, and that implication is pushed further and further back in Natalie’s mind, dissociating herself from reality. I get the feeling she desperately wants to be loved and accepted, and when she can’t make that happen she becomes increasingly unhinged and depressed, perhaps even inventing herself a friend in the mysterious girl named Tony who appears in the second part of the novel. The novel is incredibly (and purposefully) restrained, as though it’s balancing on the edge of a knife along with Natalie’s sanity.

My favourite section of the novel is actually the last few pages, set in an abandoned theme park, where the descriptions are so unsettling they feel like something out of one of those inexplicably creative nightmares you don’t really want to wake from. It’s atmospheric and vivd and… I think it’s the first time I’ve really had that “immersive Shirley Jackson experience” where I feel genuinely all at once afraid and expectant. I did feel lost in a labyrinth for a while there.

My favourite line is the last line: “As she had never been before, she was now alone, and grown up, and powerful, and not at all afraid.”


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