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30Jul

Teller of the Unexpected by Matthew Dennison review – the tall tales of a big kid

Roald Dahl’s early years are illuminated in a compact biography mostly purged of unsavoury details

“I’m afraid I like strong contrasts,” Roald Dahl said, not long before his death in 1990. “I like villains to be terrible and good people to be very good.” Dahl himself gave a lie to that formulation. He is very easy to cast as a villain: even friends described him as bullying, overbearing, arrogant and impossible; he was a compulsive gambler, a distant and wayward husband, an unforgivable antisemite. But then, with the assistance of Quentin Blake, there are also the books. Tens of millions of children – myself included – fell under the spell of his joyful, wicked, silly, inventive imagination in stories that suggested he was not of the adult world at all, but still leader of a childhood gang. Books that initiated you, as he hoped and believed, into a lifetime of reading. Books that – despite the waning reputation of their creator – Netflix last year paid upwards of £500m for the rights to adapt.

Several biographers have attempted to fill the gap between these polarities. Jeremy Treglown’s 1994 book Roald Dahl: A Biography set the parameters. Unauthorised by Dahl’s second wife and children, but with access to many of his letters, and to his first wife, the actor Patricia Neal, Treglown offered a seductive analysis of the writer’s psychology. He argued that Dahl’s life of tragedy – the writer’s father and sister had died by the time he was four, he lost his own eldest daughter to measles at the age of seven, and nursed both Neal and their son Theo through severe brain injuries – gave him a profound emotional darkness and the desperate need to find ways to transcend it. Dahl had asked his daughter Ophelia to write an authorised book, but when that proved too tough an ask, the family asked Donald Sturrock, in 2010, to step in. Sturrock trod carefully around some of Dahl’s more uncomfortable behaviour and found a convincing fortitude and late-life generosity of spirit to balance it.

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