As a child I read a book called Skinny Melon and Me by Jean Ure; written in the form of a diary it chronicled the life of Cherry, whose mother had remarried – much to her disgust – a man named Roland Butter. His favourite book, and one that was mentioned on numerous occasions in Skinny Melon and Me, was Dodie Smith’s debut novel, I Capture The Castle. Thus, when almost two decades later I scanned the list of the BBC’s Big Read, number 82 caught my eye immediately.
Written by Smith in the 1940s when she was living in California, and feeling desperately homesick for England, I Capture The Castle is a poignant novel about an impoverished family in the 1930s living in a decaying castle. And while Smith is best known for writing 101 Dalmatians, her debut novel has certainly worked its way into the heart of many readers, through its evocative writing and delightfully layered characters. Not only was it featured in the BBC’s Big Read, it is also one of 25 books selected by the founders of the 2012 World Book Night; the UK’s biggest book giveaway, whose aim is to encourage reading among the masses. Such is an accolade which illustrates the novel’s timeless nature.
The tale sees 17-year-old Cassandra, both the protagonist and narrator of the tale, fill three diaries over six months as she tries to hone and perfect her writing skills. The opening line: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’ lends an immediate and elusive charm to the tale and thus begins a story possessing the rare quality of not only an amazing sense of place, but also an incredible air of both atmosphere and character. In these journals she laments her relationships with her eccentric family; her novelist father who frequently suffers from writer’s block, her naturist step-mother who believes that being naked is an art form, and her siblings – older sister Rose who pines for a knight in shining armour to whisk her away, and younger brother Thomas, who is considered to be ‘tolerably bright’.
The arrival of wealthy American family, the Cottons, who move into nearby Scoatney Hall, thus becoming landlords to Cassandra and her family, brings about much excitement for the Mortmain’s. And so we witness a young girl’s coming of age as she falls in love for the first time and encounters various rites of passage with both sharp wit and a level head.
An absorbing book, nostalgic in nature, with beautifully written passages and as much relevance now as it had at the time of its publication, I Capture The Castle is a touching, colourful and amusing book. And to anyone who receives it on World Book Night: go forth and devour.