Book of a lifetime: I Capture the Castle, By Dodie Smith

 

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The Independent Culture

Iread I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith late. Most people I know encountered it when they were in their teens or younger. I read it this year in the gap between delivering the final draft of a novel and anyone outside of my editor and agent reading it. It had been a hard book to write, it required huge amounts of time and attention on its structure, and I wasn't sure I'd got it right. It wasn't what I had set out to write and I was worried that not enough happened, that things didn't come together enough, that there wasn't enough of a resolution.

In an attempt to distract myself, I picked up I Capture the Castle - a book totally different from the kind I'm usually attracted to. The first thing that struck me is that voice! From the famous first line – "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" - you know Cassandra is going to be right there, whispering into your ear the whole way through. The world Smith creates, so quickly and so effortlessly, of a family down on their luck, having taken out a 40-year lease on a castle when there was money from Cassandra's father's first book. But now, ten years later, they have to sell the furniture to eat.

Her father is in his study, not to be disturbed, reading detective novels and doing crosswords, crippled with writers' block; Cassandra's older sister, Rose, on whose marriage the fate of the family rests; Stephen, the sweet and handsome son of an ex-servant who is in love with Cassandra. It feels, reading it now, as if this is the story that every romantic comedy Hollywood has ever made has been trying to tell. And when we come towards the end of the book and a marriage proposal and happily-ever-after storyline seems to be in the offing, I was worried we were going to stray into that territory. But Smith is too good a writer, Cassandra too interesting a person to settle for this.

And so the book finishes, unresolved, in a sense, its characters blithely unaware of the war just around the corner (full-blown while Smith was writing the book). It is a novel about the passions of a young girl that revels in irony and ambiguity, that reminds us it is in the tension between the familiar and the unexpected that so much of the pleasure of reading a novel lies. I came away from it reminded that it doesn't matter if a novel does not offer an absolute resolution. Far better to offer questions about the continued lives of the characters, meaning that it lives on in as many different ways as it has readers.

Evie Wyld's 'All the Birds, Singing' is published by Jonathan Cape

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