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Book Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

 Book Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

The FitzOsbornes arent your typical royal family. Impoverished and isolated, they rule over a tiny islandalthough perhaps rule is too strong a word given that there are as many villagers left on the island as there are FitzOsbornes in the family castle. Fortified house, that is, as pedant Veronica points out very primly that it cannot properly be called a castle.

Though it is Veronica who is the bookish, studious one of the clan, and who is purportedly writing the official family history, the reader will be relieved to know that its not through her officious eyes that we explore the blustery, ramshackle island of Montmaray, but rather through those of her cousin Sophie. Instead of searching back through the history books to put together her account of life on the island, Sophie does so with pen and paper and a keen eye for the humour to be found in human interactionssomething Veronica patently lacks.

When I asked Veronica what shed thought about'Pride and Prejudice, she only wondered aloud how anyone could have written a novel set in the first part of the nineteenth century without once mentioning Napoleon, says Sophie. (This is perhaps why Veronica also fails to understand Sophies allusion when she describes a homoerotic situation as'a bit like Oscar Wilde and that boy. Oscar Wilde? says Veronica blankly.)

Her account has been translated from its original (made-up) Kernetin (Kernetin is based on Cornish and Latin, with some Greek letters and random meaningless squiggles thrown in to be extra-confusing. Also, it is boustrophedonic [I adore that world and try to say it as often as possible, but unfortunately it hasn't many everyday uses.]), but readers will be pleased to know that none of its wit and whimsy has been lost. Or indeed, if it has, then to no detriment of the narrative.

A Brief History of Montmaray is a warm, quiet read that owes much of its success to Sophies sense of humour and her wry observations of the daily lives of a handful of teens (and one child), a few adults, and one mad regent, whose experiences extend only as far as the shores of their tiny island. And the occasional shipment of newspapers or letter from Toby FitzOsborne, who is studying abroad (or more accurately, attending school abroad, as studying is not something Toby makes a habit of.)

Sophie muses on the near-insolvency of their kingdom:'As I wrote that last bit, Henry wandered through the kitchen wearing an ancient jersey of Tobys that is more holes than wool, but thats because she idolises Toby, not because she is a Dickensian beggar child; the problems of marriage when one is a member of a royal family: Heavens, what a snob I sound! But its not my fault Im a princess (albeit one from an impoverished and inconsequential island kingdom that is miles from anywhere) and her typical response to Veronicas bookishness:'I got distracted as I tend to do, and started thinking about the herringbone pattern in which the stones were set and whether herrings really did have their bones arranged in that particular manner.

Trivia involving vicious chickens, dwindling candle stubs and maybe-ghosts might form a large part of the narrative, but its presence is twofold. Not only does it (amusingly) highlight the purposelessness of the FitzOsbornes daily lives and the familys utter irrelevance to the wider world, but these petty concerns and interests also highlight just how myopic people can become when theyre cut off from the wider world. The setting of the novel, you see, is the end of the 1930s. There are hints of the looming WWII, but with months often going by between the arrival of news from England, the FitzOsbornes are largely in the dark regarding whats going on.

Only Veronica raises concerns:'and if even a tenth of it is true, it raises some serious questions about the British policy ofoh, Im sorry, this must be boring you. But even then, those concerns seem unsubstantiated, because Montmaray is so apart from everything else that the idea of a war seems almost unfathomable. Over Christmas pudding, for example, Sophie says:'I said I wished for peace throughout the world, especially in Spain (I actually wished Simon could come home for Christmas). Even when a group of SS officers arrive at the island, Sophie is clueless. You have family in England, yes? says one of them. The young princess told me about your brother and aunt. It will be safe there. And to this, Sophie responds:'Safe from what?

Though there are surely plenty of dark moments to come for the FitzOsbornesand indeed quite a few in this bookSophies personable, whimsical narrative style carries the reader through relatively unscathed. Its also key to the success of the format of the novel. Its so very easy for an epistolary format to feel not quite real, but Sophies messing up of dates, haphazard leaps across time and subsequent backtracking to fill in moments where shes got ahead of herself, make it easy to suspend disbelief. Its a wonderful read, and one that I highly recommend.

Rating: star Book Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooperstar Book Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooperstar Book Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooperstar Book Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooperblankstar Book Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper (excellent)

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  1. This sounds great. I love the classic style of the Fitzosbornes title covers too.

    • Stephanie /

      Its a lovely read, and the humour and whimsy is spot on. Im looking forward to the next two!

  2. I really enjoyed this one too, and I am looking forward to spending more time with the FitzOsbornes.

    • Stephanie /

      Im definitely going to try to seek out the next few in the series. And read I Capture The Castle while Im at it!

  3. Im glad you enjoyed this. Ive had it sitting on my bookshelf for aaaaages, I really should get around to reading it.

    • Stephanie /

      Yes, you really should. Off you go right now. :) Youll love it. Promise.