Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Fantastic Mr Dahl

The name Roald Dahl is one that enjoys instant recognition. The author’s phenomenal success as a writer of children’s books has meant that Dahl has become a household name the world over. His unique ability to communicate with children through fantastical tales, and his capacity to bring to life such memorable and enduring characters as Willy Wonka, the BFG and Fantastic Mr Fox, has meant that Roald Dahl’s stories have become indelibly etched on the psyche of generations of children. Beloved by both adults and children alike, Roald Dahl’s position as revered children’s author is assured.

However, it seems Dahl’s immense success as a writer has somewhat skewed our perception of this enigmatic man – most of his fans are quite unaware of the eventful and highly unconventional life he led prior to his late-flowering career as a children’s author. It is a situation that Donald Sturrock sets out to rectify in his authorised biography, aptly titled Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl.

Sturrock, in a manner reminiscent of his subject, weaves a compelling narrative, tracing Dahl’s life story from his privileged childhood in Wales, under the gaze of his indomitable Norwegian mother, to his ill-fated career as a WW2 fighter pilot and his subsequent secondment to America as a wartime diplomat and spy. As Dahl stumbles from one unlikely career-path to the next, the reader marvels at his ability to be in the right place at the right time. Opportunities seem to fall into his lap, and soon he is drawn into a glamorous social circle, striking up friendships with such political and literary heavyweights as Franklin D Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway and embarking on liaisons with numerous society beauties before his eventual marriage to Hollywood star, Patricia Neal.


It soon becomes apparent, however, that fortune did not continue to favour Roald Dahl. In fact, one is struck by a sense that he lived a life of two halves. After his sojourn in America, Dahl returned to England and took up his writing career in earnest. It was during this time that Dahl was stuck by a succession of family tragedies, namely the death of his beloved daughter Olivia, the car accident which left his infant son brain damaged and finally the stroke which almost killed his wife. These calamities left Dahl with a distinct feeling that a dark cloud hung over his family – and this feeling of impending calamity never quite left him. Add to this the constant pain he suffered as a result of a wartime plane crash, his struggle to gain acceptance among the British literary establishment, and the clandestine love affair which eventually tore his family apart, the reader is left in no doubt that the life of Roald Dahl was no fairytale.

Although Sturrock is a sympathetic biographer, he does not shy away from his subject’s much-documented dark side. This is a warts-and-all account of a man who, while celebrated for his genius, was also irascible, argumentative, contradictory and narcissistic. Storyteller is thoughtful, insightful, well-balanced … and an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in the life and work of this complex, multi-faceted and multi-talented man.

Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock is published by HarperCollins and is out in hardback now. (Paperback due in Sept 2011).

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