"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Thursday, 20 September 2012

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle is a collection of the funny but poignant diary entries of aspiring writer 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain as she hones her writing skills by attempting to ‘capture’ her life in her ramshackle old castle in the middle of the English countryside. Within the castle reside her impoverished family: her beautiful, shallow and discontented older sister Rose, her eccentric (to put it kindly) father who is suffering from financially crippling writer’s block, her stepmother Topaz, her little brother Thomas, and finally Stephen - the son of one of the Mortmains’ now deceased maid - who is enamoured with Cassandra in spite of his love being wholly unrequited.

The novel begins by documenting the day to day lives of the Mortmain family as they struggle to earn enough money to live; it is incredibly endearing and sad how much Cassandra values something as simple as bread with butter and honey:
“I shouldn’t even think millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.”

The main story begins when the two American heirs - Simon and Neil Cotton - to the estate of which the castle is a part turn up, and the Mortmain family have their lives changed dramatically in the 6 months that Cassandra’s diary spans.

I Capture the Castle is a mesmerising and utterly charming tale. In many ways it reminds me of a more modern version of Little Women, but at the same time I found it to be quite a depressing read because of the characters’ circumstances, and Cassandra’s ignorance of the gravity of her family’s troubles.

The narrative is beautiful - Cassandra’s voice is engaging and honest; she is a character who is difficult to dislike. She peppers her diary with references to literature, particularly the Brontë sisters and Austen:
“‘How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!’ 
I said I’d rather be in a Charlotte Brontë. 
‘Which would be nicest - Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?’” - Rose and Cassandra
Although I Capture the Castle is set in the 1930’s, the issues and feelings that Cassandra is forced to tackle - growing up, falling in love, financial strain, loneliness and family strife - are timeless and make her a very relatable character, especially with readers who are of a similar age.

The ending was quite unusual and not all the loose ends were tied up. Nonetheless I felt happy with how Smith concluded the novel as it fit with the journal format that she had chosen to write the story - this meant I didn’t feel annoyed by the slight open endedness of the tale as I have done with other books.

Though I Capture the Castle is often classed as a young adult novel, it is definitely relevant to older readers and can be readily enjoyed by practically any age group. Going into the book, I thought it would be quite a juvenile story and I dislike diary style books as a general rule (however, it reads very much like a novel rather than a diary - there are chapters and no childish ‘Dear diary...’) but I found I Capture the Castle to be a delightful, if depressing, read. It is a very real, heartwarming story and it deals with issues that people face every day; it is alarmingly relevant nowadays considering its publication date. I Capture the Castle is a charming and compelling novel, but at the same time it is a very sad tale and has left me not really knowing how I truly feel about what happened between its pages, but one thing I do know is that it will stay with me for a very long time.

Rating: 8/10

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