Wednesday, 15 January 2020

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith



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The Mortmain family live in Godsend castle, crumbling and increasingly sparsely furnished as Cassandra’s father continues in a writer’s block that has impoverished his family. When the Cottons, a wealthy American family who have just inherited nearby Scoatney Hall, arrive they see an opportunity to marry Rose off and provide them all with some much needed financial stability.

Cassandra, our narrator, is seventeen and hoping to follow in her father’s footsteps and become an author, believing that writing a journal will help train her in telling stories. The narrative style creates a real closeness with the characters. It is realistically written, her filling us in when she hasn’t had time to write for a couple of days. Both her and Rose seem younger than they are with an innocence and naivety that has presumably sprung from their secluded home. Cassandra is an honest narrator, explaining and questioning her own motives even when they don’t paint her in the best light. She is sweet and willing to do all she can to help Rose succeed in wooing Simon Cotton, even braving a freezing nighttime swim with his brother Neil to give them more time alone.

There are many glimpses of normalcy that feel entirely natural throughout, the awkwardness of the Cottons enquiring whether or not her father will be releasing a sequel to his popular first novel Jacob Wrestling is painfully familiar to all who have ever been subject to questioning on a sensitive topic at a family gathering. The scene also gives extra context to his struggles. His novel was experimental and well received but others have built on and surpassed his work in the interim. He seems paralysed by the pressure and instead of writing spends his days reading detective novels and doing crosswords while his family makes do with what they have.

Stephen, who carries out errands for the family and is utterly devoted to Cassandra, contributes any income he can to make life more comfortable for them, although as Cassandra says, she never feels hard done by in their situation. She is also largely oblivious to Stephen’s affections but tries to rebuff him gently when encouraged to do so by her step-mother Topaz. Former model and a big believer in communing with nature, she completes the bohemian lifestyle and brings some light dramatics. Cassandra’s brother Thomas is largely absent throughout but does play an important role in an unexpected to plot to encourage their father to start writing again.

This is a book I’ve always heard good things about but thought perhaps I’d missed the boat with. I was wrong. This is an enchanting, delightful read at whatever age you come to it. Cassandra’s voice is distinctive and honest, creating such vivid descriptions of their home and lives that you feel you could easily step through into her world. An absolute treat of a book.

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