The Big Read

No.82 – I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith Read 24/12/14

I believe that this book falls into the category of historical fiction but I tend to think of historical fiction of being in relation to historic events. If it is just set in a different time period I think of it as period fiction. Anyway, I read the back of I Capture the Castle and couldn’t wait to read it. I think I was slugging my way through something or other at the time, I bought it and it took all my will power to not just drop everything and read this instead.

Cassandra Mortmain lives in the crumbling ruin of a castle in the English countryside with her eccentric family during the 1930s. Her father once wrote an excellent novel but now has chronic writer’s block, her step-mother Topaz likes to play the lute and wonder around the countryside naked and her older sister Rose longs to live in a Jane Austen novel. There is also the servant-come-son Stephan who is in love with Cassandra which she find flattering but exceedingly embarrassing. Cassandra’s diary gives an insight into the world of this impoverished family and how their lives are changed forever with the arrival of two wealthy American brothers.

I love the typical British eccentricity of this novel. It is spot on with its depiction of people doing their own thing and not caring what anyone thinks. But that’s where the conflict comes from. Suddenly as Cassandra grows up she does care about how others perceive her and she struggles with being ashamed of her family in all its wacky glory. I like Cassandra as a narrator, like all diaries her’s is biased but I always felt for her even if I didn’t agree with her.

The writing of this novel felt modern so I was shocked to learn that it was written during the Second World War in California of all places. The setting is so powerful and beautifully crafted that I assumed Smith had sat on a hill looking over this ruined castle as she wrote the manuscript. Perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder and missing her home country Smith painted the most beautiful portrait of it from thousands of miles away where she couldn’t see the imperfections.

The prominent theme is romance which we all know is not my favourite but in this context I didn’t mind it. I think it is because the love that Cassandra and her sister Rose feel is much more a part of their journey to adulthood than anything else.  For fear of spoiling it I shall say no more except the ending was unexpected and wonderful.This story is about growing up and I think it might be one of my favourite Bildungsroman ever. I know I shall visit this world again if only for the escape of the captured castle.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: not quite adults.

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