From time to time you get lucky and happen to start reading a book that is exactly the type of story you need to read at that moment, a story that makes you go, “Yes! Perfect!” I am definitely a believer that there is a “best moment” to read many books. Haven’t you had that experience of trying to read a book that has been recommended to you and for some reason, you can’t get through it, so you leave it and pick it up months later and discover you love it? Michelle Cooper’s A Brief History of Montmaray came to me when I most needed something super satisfying, in this case, a quirky family story, with a dynamite setting and an old-fashioned feel that reminded me of some of my most-loved childhood books.
The book is written as a diary, and Sophie FitzOsborne is the diary writer. Sophie lives in a rundown castle on the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray, a speck in the Atlantic close to France and England. Montmaray does not have many residents. There is the royal family: Sophie, her younger sister Henry, her counsin Veronica, and her crazy Uncle John, the King, and then there are the few remaining locals who have lived on the island and served the FitzOsbornes for years. Oh, and Carlos. We cannot forget the family pooch, a Portuguese water dog.
It is 1936. Sophie has just turned 16, and she decides to use the journal she received for her birthday to document day-to-day life on the island. Veronica spends her days in scholarly pursuits, delving into the history of the island but also keeping herself informed on current political issues and their potential impact on the home she so fiercely loves. Henry is a wild tomboy, forever tearing around the island, getting into trouble and trying to avoid lessons. It seems for a while that life on Montmaray will continue as it always has, but then a boat arrives with two German officers, an event that sets about changes that the girls have resisted for a long time.
A Brief History of Montmaray has been compared by numerous reviewers to Dodie Smiths I Capture the Castle. Because I had that comparison in my mind from the start, I confess that is distracted me and at first prevented me from appreciating the ways in which this book is not like Dodie Smith’s. Yes, there were moments when I wondered how a publisher had the guts to publish a book so similar to a beloved classic. I got over it though. That’s because there are more than enough elements to this book that differentiate it from I Capture the Castle: the entirely unique setting, the emphasis on the politics of the period, the adventure plot towards the end. I think that fans of Smith’s book will love Montmaray too, for some of the same reasons that they treasure I Capture the Castle, but for other reasons too.
For example, the relationships between the girls are so convincing, charming and funny. The girls are all quite eccentric, especially Veronica and Henry, and any scene with those two was memorable and usually hilarious. The dynamic between the girls actually made me recall the Penderwicks, in the way that they so obviously know each other better than anyone, and love one another terribly, but sometimes really get on each other’s nerves the way only close relations can.
There might be readers not taken by the rambling nature of the narrative, particularly at the beginning, as Sophie is just getting into the groove of diary writing, introducing events and history on the island. I adored that aspect, and I think that the way the text rambles a bit at the start is what makes the diary structure particularly believable. And there is tension, a strong feeling from the beginning that the best times on the island of Montmaray are in the past, that everything is crumbling and that the concerns of the world beyond will press in closer and closer until the tiny kingdom will not be able to stand alone anymore.
This is a book that reminded me of some of my favourite reads from childhood. I think it has to do with it’s strong sense of place, a place that is both dramatic and romantic, and also the memorable voices of the characters. I know they will stay with me for a while. I will be eager to read The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the second book in this series, when it is published here.
A Brief History of Montmaray is published by Knopf. (And thank goodness someone revamped the unfortunate Australian cover).