Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

BBYA's annotation for this title is "Not even a small island nation populated mostly by royalty can keep neutral in the events leading up to the Second World War." The bit about WWII is what made me pick this up - I'm still a sucker for WWII literature (it all started with Anne Frank's diary, way back in elementary school) and this sounded like a different spin on it.

This isn't, however, your usual WWII book. For one thing, it doesn't take place in Europe proper, but rather a small (fictional) island nation in the Bay of Biscay, called Montmaray.

Montmaray has a storied past, with the royal family's history filled with noble warriors. The island once had a thriving population - but in 1936, the island has a handful of villagers (most of them elderly), a mad king, and three princesses. The crown prince spends most of his time at school in England along with Simon, the son of the royal family's housekeeper (who spends most of her time doting on the senile king rather than keeping house) and the object of Sophie's, our narrator, affections.

As Sophie relates in her diary, the story spans the end of 1936 and into the beginning of 1937. The island is so isolated that news from Europe comes in fits and starts. They know trouble is brewing in Spain thanks to Franco and his fascists, and Sophie's scholarly cousin, Veronica, has heard rumors of the terrible things Hitler does to his enemies in Germany. Trouble in Europe means that should anything happen on the island, opportunities for help will be few and far between.

While Montmaray was once a key player in European politics, it is now an unimportant backwater that rarely receives visitors - so it is a surprise when a pair of Nazi scholars take up residence in the village, allegedly looking for the Holy Grail, or at least information about it, on Montmaray. After one of the Nazis is accidentally killed, and then the family dog bites a chunk out of the leg of their commanding officer, it begins to look like the family's days of safety in Montmaray are numbered.

I have to say, I don't always quite "buy" the diary novel format. Maybe I'm just a terrible diary keeper, but it seems unlikely that a person could take down a story in such detail as to include lengthy conversations. However one thing I did like about this stories use of the format is how Sophie's use of the diary changed from the beginning of the story through the end. The diary is a gift from Sophie's brother, and initially she uses it to talk about how much she likes Simon and wants to go to Europe to make her debut in society and wear lots of pretty dresses. She also shares her frustration that her cousin and best friend Veronica doesn't share such ambitions - while Sophie is writing her musings in her diary, Veronica spends her days in the library researching and writing her own Brief History of Montmaray. Veronica notes that it is good Sophie is recording the events of life on Montmaray in her diary, as such a book will be invaluable to future historians. That makes Sophie reconsider some of her silly musings, and while her feelings for Simon are still present throughout the story, Sophie begins to become much more serious about writing about life on the island. It's a subtle way of showing how Sophie must grow up in the face of unprecedented adversity.

While Montmaray and its royal family are completely made up, the book still closely follows the political upheavals of the 1930s. The author has included a historical guide on her website, with plenty of links to Wikipedia, so readers can find out more about the people, places, and literature mentioned in the story.


Heather Hedin Singh said...

Hi Angela--I found your blog through the Comment Challenge. I am currently reading A Brief History of Montmaray. I was intrigued by the cover and the WWII story--am about 1/3 or more through but find the diary format a little slow. Glad to hear there's more action to come. Happy Comment Challenge to you!

Anonymous said...

I took this one out of the library, but had to return it due to holds. I hope to actually read it one of these days. Thanks for the review!

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