I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithGuest Reviewer: Hazel Ward

Author: Dodie Smith
Publisher: Vintage (2004) [Originally published 1948]
Number of Pages: 408
How long it took me to read: 3 days
Where I bought this book: Amazon.co.uk
ISBN: 978-0-099-46087-9

Like a Moth to a Flame

If there were ever a title to intrigue the reader in me, it would have to be I Capture the Castle. Almost lyrical in its composition, those four words invite me inside the book to discover their meaning; are they metaphorical, or is the titular castle a real building of stone and mortar? Once I open the book and read what has to be one of the most engaging first lines ever written—“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”— I’m captivated.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Perhaps it is because I have satisfied my creative urge; or it may be due to the thought of eggs for tea.” (p.15)

4. “I began to have a desperate feeling that time was rushing by and we weren’t talking about anything I could treasure for the future…” (p.322)

3. “I longed to call after him: ‘Father, really! Are you going queer in the head?’ But it struck me that if a man is going queer in the head, he is the last person to mention it to.” (p.233)

2. “And I regret to say that there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard.” (p.86)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “It seems to me now that the whole day was like an avenue leading to a home I had loved once but forgotten, the memory of which was coming back to dimly, so gradually, as I wandered along, that only when my home at last lay before me did I cry: ‘Now I know why I have been happy!’ ” (p.242)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I, like many people I’m sure, knew Smith only as the author of 101 Dalmatians. What a wonderful surprise to find in her the creator of a strikingly hilarious, sharp, and quick-witted bildungsroman unfolding so beautifully on these pages! Near the beginning, I can’t help smiling when Cassandra bluntly tells her older sister that it’s very hard to sell oneself on the streets ‘in the depths of Suffolk’ (p.11), while further on (p.175) I laugh as she cuts through a man’s overly-romantic view of her sister Rose: ‘And she is so intelligent—he kindly said I was too, but Rose is a wit (a fact not yet disclosed to her family).’ ”

“Cassandra, the story’s protagonist and first person-narrator, is immediately realised as a complete, multi-faceted character, a young woman who is simultaneously naïve and cynical, warm yet prone to casual callousness, romantic but more often pragmatic. It is precisely because Smith allows me to see Cassandra’s inner thoughts, both noble and selfish, that I am able to engage with her thoughts and emotions as she falls in love. Interestingly, although every other character is presented only through Cassandra’s perceptions, they too are fully realised; I can grasp a sense of each one’s whole, complex existence simply from snatches of dialogue and the narrator’s descriptions. I never get the sense that I’m simply watching actors controlled by Cassandra‘s words; they feel like real, all-too-human people.”

“I’m starting to appreciate the multiplicity of the title. Cassandra begins the story by attempting to depict her home in a crumbling, century castle, as well as her eccentric but loveable family by writing down her thoughts and observations in a journal. Writing about the characters in her family is a task that she seems tentative about at first, but as the story progresses, and Cassandra forgets about actively trying to be a writer, her efforts and insights become deeper, more piercing and less self-conscious.”

“As I get to know her better, I think Cassandra is indeed succeeding in ‘capturing the castle’. However, at the same time, the title also evokes the image of a chess game, of a player constantly trying to capture the castle, or rook, while enmeshed in a complex interplay of game pieces (in this case, her friends and family). During the progression of the novel I can see, both in Cassandra’s words and between the lines, that everyone has been playing to their own emotional strategy. Cassandra herself comes to the realisation that she doesn’t truly know her family and friends as well as she thought, and that parents are as complicated and confused as teenagers. Her appreciation of this reminds me very much of how unsettling it was to figure out, when I was a teenager, that my parents were not just parents, but real people with lives of their own.”

“The clever central conceit of an aspiring writer chronicling her experiences in three separate journals gives scope for the story to work on multiple levels. As a result of Cassandra’s limited perspective and knowledge of events, I find myself searching the subtext beneath her assumptions and drawing out my own interpretations. I have to remind myself that Cassandra is an unreliable narrator; her own documentation and interpretation of her past experiences are constantly in a state of flux, affected by her present emotions, understanding of situations, and new information.

“Her diary entries, in particular, draw me in because I know very well the feeling of writing a diary, only to read it back and experience extreme embarrassment over what I wrote! Like Cassandra, I found it very tempting to cross-out certain parts of my own writing, and leave out some thoughts altogether: reading snippets of Cassandra’s brilliantly ‘teenage’ thoughts makes me cringe in empathy.”

“As I realise I’m reaching the end of the novel, I start to long for more chapters: to find out how these characters’ lives progress past the final page. The last few chapters present a hopeful, almost optimistic view of the future. However, I sense a more melancholy, jaded tone underneath, which leads me realise how precarious all these happy situations may be. Conversely, Cassandra barely considers her own future: it is subsumed under her refrain of ‘I love him. I love him.’ and yet I feel certain that her future will move far beyond her juvenile journal writing and the pain of her first love.”

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1 Comment

  1. GKelly says:

    Many thanks for this lovely reminder of a book I first read and enjoyed many years ago. What’s so interesting for me is to re-‘see’ the book through another’s eyes. Before discovering the Uncustomary Book Review approach to reading, I tended to speed through my books and forgot most of them once I was into the next one.

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