Friday, 29 October 2010

Book Review: Matilda by Roald Dahl

Read: Multiple times, the most recent of which is October 2010
Last weekend I did something I haven’t done in years: I went away without packing a book. I didn’t mean to, and certainly wasn’t happy to find I had, but it gave me an opportunity to pick up something I wouldn’t have read at home. After carefully browsing the bookshelves where I was staying it came down to a battle between two quite different books: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster and Matilda by Roald Dahl. Of Auster’s comprehensive folio, I have only read Mr Vertigo which I enjoyed without being bowled over by. However, it is one of the favourite books of a writer friend of mine and it has been in my to-read pile for at least two years. I read the first page, complete with her annotation (I love scrawled in books) and was bowled over by the immediacy with which it gripped me.

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”

What a stunning start. I could happily have continued reading and not stopped there. But for fairness sake I set it temporarily down to read a page of Matilda before making my choice. And I didn’t put it down until it was finished.

Matilda holds a special place in my heart. It is my favourite of Dahl's many books, and Dahl was my favourite author as a child. My first independent reading memory is of staying up late one night to finish it under the covers and I must have read it four or five times after that. Picking it up sent a shiver through my spine. I was shocked by just how good it was to be returning to Matilda after at least 15 and probably twenty years without reading it.

Mr and Mrs Wormwood are uncultured, crooked, neglectful parents who treat their children like a burden that has been unjustly thrust upon them. They spend their evenings eating TV dinners in front of the gogglebox, playing bingo and discussing how to make money. They are so self-interested they don’t even register their youngest daughter, Matilda, for school until she is five-and-a-half. They are vacuous, nasty, loathsome parents.

Matilda is different. She likes to read rather than watch TV and possesses intelligence bordering on genius. She can do mental arithmetic as quick as a calculator and spell words that most can only dream of. But when she finally gets to school she encounters a head teacher who makes her parents look almost bearable: a former hammer thrower named Miss Trunchbull. Trunchbull is a child-hating bully with a penchant for grabbing children by the hair and hurling them as far as she can. It is rumoured that she even has a punishment cupboard called The Chokey which is lined with glass and nails so children have to stand perfectly straight while confined. But when Matilda starts to find she has special powers, she concocts a plan to help her stricken teacher Miss Honey and punish the Trunchbull once and for all.

Roald Dahl writes a child’s fantasy perspective sumptuously, complete with the terrors of being small and the dreams of impacting on the big world around you. His characters – with their Dickensian names like Miss Trunchbull (rotten) and Miss Honey (lovely) – and the illustrations by Quentin Blake are broadly drawn caricatures we read with a child’s sense of uncomfortable awe. We make visceral, immediate judgements of them which never change, even as we see their humanity emerging around the black and white of their actions.

As a child I identified with Matilda, not because I was a genius or had horrible parents or scary teachers, but because we each loved reading. She reads every book in the children’s section of her local library by the time she is four and then graduates to grown-up classics which she reads with equal voracity. I wanted to be her, genius and speed reading and all. She is mature beyond her years, caring, considerate and generous. She has a well developed sense of morality, a wicked sense of mischief, and is able to do things that the many various gorwn-ups she comes across cannot.

The fact is, I still love Matilda and I still want to be her.

Matilda is a bibliophiles dream, an unfettered celebration of the joys of reading and a typical Dahl rejection of cold technology in favour of vivid imagination. However, the biggest surprise I had on reading Matilda again is that it didn’t inspire me to read the classic novels Matilda does. Early in the adventure, Dahl lists some of the books she has read, including Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Kim, The Invisible Man and The Grapes of Wrath. But as a child I read none of these. I really don’t know why. But what a wonderful context in which to discover such books, and what a resource this is for young readers wanting to move into grown-up literature. Indeed, what a wonderful resource this is for a sometime book blogger like me who has only read five of the fourteen books listed! It appears I have some reading to do…

But before then, I must go back and read The New York Trilogy.

10 out of 10

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