Saturday, 11 April 2015

Review 2015 No. 11 | Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is a legendary figure for whom little introduction or fanfare is necessary. After a near idyllic childhood in Wales (some say a breeding ground for imagination), interrupted abruptly by an English Public school education, he joined the Shell Petroleum Company (the adventures of which form the sequel to Boy, Going Solo). From there his creativity and love of storytelling and language brought him to the world of children's fantasy books. He was a prolific writing (creating seventeen books for children alone) during his 74-year lifetime (including Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). His imagination represented pictorially in illustrator Quentin Blake's work, which are now synonymous with Dahl's writing. His achievement and contribution to the world of fiction, which have put him up alongside the literary greats - J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien - were recognised in his World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, which he received in 1983.

The first of Dahl's two autobiographies, Boy: Tales of Childhood was first published in 1984, the year after he received his Lifetime Achievement Award. Boy is a fascinating insight into what made the genius linguaphile, and confirms the axiom that truth is stranger than fiction (and Dahl never shied from the strange in his writing). In a time before public obsession with high profile abuse cases, Dahl describes the horrific and often torturous nature of the English public school system through his time at St Peter's and Repton School. Dahl also gives a personal insight into 20th century medicine when describing the death of his sister Astri to appendicitis, as well as his own treatment for adenoids and a broken nose (both without anaesthetic). 

Further to Dahl's time in rural Wales with his parents Harald and Sofie, we also learn about his Norwegian blood and lakeside Scandinavian family holidays. As a reader and a writer, what is most prescient and revealing is Dahl's description of writing. He compares a writing career to his time with Shell, juxtaposing a chaotic, schedule-less, but rewarding world with an ordered 9-to-5 existence. That is what draws you in. Dahl didn't have to take to the shed in his garden and write (okay, maybe at the beginning he did it for the money), he continued on day after day because he enjoyed it. He loved storytelling and wanted to share his world with those around him. For that we should be truly grateful. He leaves behind a legacy beyond bound volumes on shelves.

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