Book Review: I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

Book 82

I capture the castle

This is the diary of Cassandra Mortmain, which tells of her extraordinary family and their crumbling castle home. Cassandra’s father was once a famous writer, but now he mainly reads detective novels while his family slide into genteel poverty. Her sister Rose is bored and beautiful, and desperate to marry riches. Their step-mother Topaz has a habit of striding through the countryside wearing only her wellington boots. But all their lives will be soon be transformed by the arrival of new neighbours from America, and Cassandra finds herself falling in love…

I Capture the Castle is a wonderful book.  When I first started reading it I found myself comparing it to Cold Comfort Farm, a book I read earlier this year which is set in the same period and is centred around a teenage girl called Flora.  In a way, the two books have similarities.  For example the language of the characters; their phrases and manners and the stilted, semi-formal conversations between the characters portrayed in both books have the same tone and feel which I think shows that these books are accurate depictions of English society in the 1930’s.  Another similarity is the air of melodrama around the home the two young protagonists (Flora and Cassandra) live in.  The family life in both books creates a situation comedy at times with the different characters all facing a crisis or sudden change in their own way.  However Cold Comfort Farm was purely a melodrama; I Capture the Castle is so much more.  The melodrama and comedy that appears is purely natural as they are just part of the many layers that make up this story.  The characters are richer and have more depth and I felt I could see the castle and countryside that Cassandra lives in just as she saw it.  From the famous opening line I was drawn in to the book; the pace at times seems slow but I felt that just added to the charm.  Through the book I could feel Cassandra growing up as she became less naive and more astute to the ways of the world and the lives of the other characters around her. By the end of the book you can see Cassandra’s perceptions of her family has changed; they are almost different people from the characters she first describes at the beginning.  Yet her feelings toward them never change; understanding them more has not caused her to love them any more or any less as it is really herself that has changed not them.

What I liked about this book:  I think what I liked most was the way in which the story is told.  It is written in the first person but in a diary format so that the events portrayed are only told after they have occurred and through the filter of  Cassandra’s perception and reflection on the events.  This I felt gave a real insight into Cassandra’s character and allowed me to see her growing up and her views changing.  The writing is fairly concise; there aren’t too many ramblings like you might expect from a diary and the dialogue between the characters always seems very accurately conveyed and though that might not be very realistic, it is crucial to the book not feeling monotonous.  There was a period towards the end of the book when Cassandra is going through a period of solitude.  I did feel at this point that the book had lost some of its colour due to the dynamic of the different characters being removed.  But then the book picks up the pace again as it draws to its conclusion making it impossible to put down.

What I didn’t like about this book:  Something which I felt held this book back was Cassandra’s youth and naivety.  As Cassandra is telling the story there is only so much that she understands when it comes to the issues in her family life.  If Cassandra had been slightly older, then Dodie Smith could have delved deeper into the problems that each character has and raise this book from being a poignant yet light-hearted story to something that really looks at the issues the family has and tries to understand the events that caused the dysfunction in the family life.  I do think that Dodie Smith tried to address this as best she could but I feel she was limited by Cassandra’s lack of experience of the world around her.

Ultimately I Capture the Castle is a reflection of Cassandra leaving her childhood behind and becoming an adult.  In a way it replicates the charm of a classic Jane Austen novel yet has a slightly more modern feel to it as well.  When I started reading this book I felt it was inevitable how the book would end but it surprised me with a few unexpected twists.  Some of it was predictable, but I don’t think you can avoid that when you are telling a love story involving sisters and brothers. The fact that it had enough twists in the story is what sets the book apart from more conventional stories.  Even though Cassandra falling in love for the first time is the main vein of the story, it is really only a part of the different themes in the book.  I Capture the Castle is most definitely a timeless classic that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age and will never lose its charm or its ability to touch the reader in an unexpected way.

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