I Capture the Castle (by Dodie Smith)

I came across Dodie Smith as a child, when I read - several times - her classic 'The 101 Dalmations' and its lesser-known (but equally delightful) sequel 'The Starlight Barking'.

However, I had no idea until recently that she had written any other books. A few years ago we acquired the DVD of 'I Capture the Castle', which we watched as a family. We thought it a little odd, rather gothic, somewhat confusing, but - on the whole - enjoyable.

A few weeks ago I borrowed the novel from a friend, as I hadn't ever read it. I saw the film long enough ago that I'd pretty much forgotten it - other than the final part when the father is tricked into doing something he has been putting off.

The whole book is written in journal format by Cassandra, a 17-year-old who lives in a rather draughty castle. She has a light style and a way with words, and we meet the rest of her family through what she says about them. She's particularly fond of her romantic older sister Rose, with whom she shares a room and many secrets. She's often frustrated by their father, who had one book published, some years ago, but now suffers permanent writers' block. Since the book was written in the 1950s, the entire family fortunes rest on the father's income - or lack of it. Gradually the items in the castle have been sold, leaving them, as the book opens, pretty much on the poverty line. Their stepmother Topaz is a delightful, if somewhat eccentric presence in the household; their brother Thomas rather shadowy at first, but comes into his own later on. And then there's and a young man called Stephen who works for them, but has become almost like another son... and is in love with Cassandra.

Two young men from America arrive on the scene, and play havoc, one way or another, with everyone's emotions. I was reminded, briefly, of the confused tangle in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. There's some slightly surreal humour in the book, and some caricatured class consciousness, all viewed from Cassandra's perspective. It seems dated in some ways, and at first I struggled to find it interesting; but as the book progressed, I found myself drawn more and more into the story.

This was originally written as teenage fiction, and is still published as such; but I suspect it's probably read more, these days, by women with their own teenagers or adult children.

Still in print, both sides of the Atlantic. Recommended.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 21st October 2010

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