Despite being a big fan of children’s books, I somehow managed to miss most of Roald Dahl’s ouvre, so I’m fixing that, slowly but surely. Dahl is fascinating in that he’s writing for children, but not really sugar-coating things. He deals with a lot of fantastical ideas, like witches or telepathy, but somehow presents them in a mainly realistic context. The most interesting thing about Roald Dahl, though, is that he’s writing for children, yet he often writes about things that are really, really unpleasant. Not necessarily scary or gory or horrific, but just … really bad. I think that in a society that so often tries to protect children from the bad things in the world, it’s refreshing and somehow respectful of him to have presented things to children, in their own terms, without trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
Matilda is an extraordinarily gifted little girl. She’s reading her way through Dickens and other classics at the age of four. When she shows up at school for the first time, she can already multiply large numbers in her head. She’s a prodigy. And yet, she is completely shunned at home. Her parents not only neglect and ignore her, they seem to flat-out despise her! Her father is a crooked used-car salesman, and her mother seems to spend most of her time playing bingo. They only eat TV dinners while glued to the set watching soap operas, when they’re not saying horribly mean things to their daughter. Matilda, being smarter than everyone else, gets her own back by playing clever tricks on her family. But the real trouble starts when she goes to school and finds herself caught up in circumstances surrounding the evil headmistress and her lovely and appreciative teacher.
This is vintage Dahl. It’s mostly a fun little read, but maybe I’m getting soft, because I found the parents’ treatment of their daughter amazingly sad. The headmistress, in the more starring villain role, was easier to stomach, but I guess it’s just that I’m a parent now myself. As I said, Dahl really knows how to present things to children in a way that they will understand. The notion of horrid parents who don’t appreciate their fantastic child is certainly something a kid will buy into, especially if they’re mad at their folks. For an adult reader, the lack of any sort of background to explain WHY the parents are that way is a little weird, but ultimately it doesn’t take much away from the story. The theme of knowledge and learning over a more passive and non-intellectual existence is a great message, I think, and I’ll be interested to see what my daughter makes of the story in a few years. Apparently, the story of Matilda is currently wowing audiences in the West End as a blockbuster musical, too, which means that Dahl’s stories really are timeless classics. Pick one up today!