When We’re All Roses of Possession: A Review of Susan Scarf Merrell’s 'Shirley'

There’s a difference between love and possession, isn’t there? In love, we’re comfortable with the people in our lives, we know our minds and hearts, and we’re in control. But what of the excitement inherent in being possessed, that ridden desire to possess another person or another life? What of the thrill in possessing—the internal fire that erupts at any opportunity to keep and protect what’s ours? Then, of course, there’s the purposeful feeling we attain, the knowledge that we are, in fact, visible. 

Are those experiences really separate from how we experience love? It seems for the characters in Susan Scarf Merrell’s tense second novel, Shirley, they are not. With straightforward, yet elegant prose, Merrell plunges us into a world where internal conflict steals the spotlight and immediate action lingers backstage. Here, the narrator Rose recounts her life at 19-years-old: pregnant with her first child and married to Fred Nemser, a scholar who has just taken a job at Bennington College, and who she lives with in the house of acclaimed novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Rose is from a troubled family and afraid of her own desire. Her intense self-examination and inability to let herself act on her feelings are the most painful parts of her character, but also the most endearing, ones that help us understand why her desire completely takes over, and how easily she becomes possessed by Shirley.

Merrell paints an accurate portrait of Shirley Jackson’s personality and lifestyle, the eccentric details of which are enhanced by Rose’s innocent, excitement-starved eyes. Jackson’s disheveled home, passion for witchcraft, secrecy, and power, vices of smoking and drinking, and frequent emotional breakdowns juxtaposed with Rose’s eventually desperate attempts to understand Shirley, provides the clearest source of external struggle in Merrell’s novel.

The suspense, however, rises from Rose’s changing exposure and internal reactions to love and possession. As early as the second page, a dialogue between Rose and Shirley suggests this budding tension:

“You know who you love,” I said.
She laughed, as if I’d said something terribly clever.
And then she added, “I’ll do what’s needed to keep what’s mine.”

During these early pages, Rose’s innocent focus on love and loyalty versus Shirley’s fiercer focus on possession sets us up to believe that their relationship will be the primary conflict in the story. Though the overlapping themes of love and possession strengthen the longer Rose and Fred live in the Hyman/Jackson house, the suspense isn’t in the characters’ interactions or past wrongdoings, but the actions that result from Rose’s developing obsession with Shirley.

Merrell’s commendable strength is in her ability to tether us to Rose, her talent for voice bleeding into every pore of Rose’s narration.  With passages like “I didn’t know I was lonely. I didn’t know there was another way to be,” and “Her hand gentle on my forearm, fingers light as dust; I know her touch, or do I dream it?  Is this a spell?  Delicious paralysis creeps like a blessing along the length of me,” how could the desires of the reader, not to mention those of the other characters, not marry those of such subtly passionate a narrator? We willingly trust one voice, perhaps the most possessed of all, to give us our information. “My name is nowhere! I pawed through every single page of her journal. I read her letters. I don’t exist! In her mind, I was never alive!” Just as Rose becomes enmeshed in Shirley’s life, we become enmeshed in Rose’s. We believe everything Rose says is of the utmost importance, and everywhere she goes will change us all. Merrell has created the kind of narrator that drives a novel ferociously up court, and even if the basket is small or inconsequential, we revel in having gotten there in her company.

It’s almost a slam-dunk.

Merrell occasionally loses her focus on Rose’s obsession, and it’s only then that we lose our patience. The allusions to Shirley Jackson’s actual work, such as The Haunting of Hill House, the long sections of Rose’s own writing, and the disappearance of a student named Paula Weldon, seem fitting to the novel’s heartbeat simply because they are plot-driven. Unfortunately, they pale in comparison to the events that display Rose’s internal desperation to intertwine her life with Shirley’s. The continuous personification of the house (“The house is worried I have not rested well”) and the suspicion of who kidnapped and murdered Paula (one of the many supposed secrets Rose writes about), are meant to weave more complexity into Rose’s increasing desire to be part of the Jackson/Hyman life, but they don’t contribute to that dramatic, internal change of character. Merrell brilliantly transforms Rose from a girl who loved and “dreamed of firm decisions, impeccable in their correctness” into a girl possessed, attempting to ‘get into’ Shirley’s mind by writing like her, visiting Shirley’s daughter at school to assure her place in the family, and continuing to be overall infatuated with Shirley, but the way in which these frayed story threads randomly appear in Rose’s consciousness and then fizzle away seem more and more unlike her (and unlike Merrell’s naturally poetic style) the more obsessed she becomes with Shirley.

Shirley, despite its sometimes meandering plot conventions, is a thriller of an inherently human, internal world with so much tension it has no choice but to explode into action. What Merrell has done is artful and gasp-worthy in its own right, a careful exploration of what comes of the marriage between love and possession, and the desperation of the creepiest, most heartbreaking kind.

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