Roald Dahl: Three Novels

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So, while this year I started re-reading Douglas Adams, I also pencilled in another go over Roald Dahl’s back catalogue. I read one of his adult collections last year, and in enjoying it, it made me nostalgic for those of my childhood. I was going to wait until I’d finished Adams, but instead I decided to make a little dent in the collection this morning and powered through three before lunch. Here, therefore, are short reviews for three of the shortest in Dahl’s oeuvre.

The Magic Finger (1966)

“The farm next to ours is owned by Mr and Mrs Gregg.”

The Magic Finger is possibly Dahl’s weirdest, and given what it’s up against, that’s certainly saying something. The plot is tiny, featuring an unnamed girl who has the ability to point her finger at people when they make her angry and punish them in supernatural ways. She vows never to use her powers again after accidentally giving her teacher whiskers, but when she sees her neighbours have been hunting again and killed a beautiful deer, she uses the magic finger on them and gives them a taste of their own medicine.

While the story isn’t perhaps his most memorable, its brevity is full enough with the qualities you expect from him. It’s dark, somewhat macabre, and given a vitally important moral that almost certainly turned more than a few children vegetarian, for a while at least. As with all the books though, the real magic actually comes from Quentin Blake’s gorgeous illustrations. While sketchy and perhaps derided by those who don’t understand the style, they fit perfectly with the tale. I love that the story gives us absolutely no indication of how the heroine got her powers, when else she’s used it, or what she’ll go on to do with the rest of her life. It’s a slice-of-life that’s bizarre and treated as totally normal, making it even more fun.

Fantastic Mr Fox (1970)

“Down in the valley there were three farms.”

This is probably one of his most famous stories. In it, Mr Fox and his family are besieged by three evil farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. When the farmers reach breaking point with Mr Fox stealing their animals to feed his own family, they decide to dig him out of his hillside home. Mr Fox, however, is much smarter than them, and while they have left their farms to hunt down their enemy, the animals of the forest set about ensuring a bountiful feast.

Again, the short story is wonderfully illustrated by Blake, and the characters shine through. The villains here are particularly revolting – although still nothing compared to the third story listed here – and starkly memorable. Once they’ve set up position on the hill awaiting Mr Fox to reach desperation and come out to find some food, the drama abates, and while there are a couple of other threats installed later, they don’t seem to have the same heft as the three farmers.

Nonetheless, this is one of my favourite Dahl books. While not perhaps actually as dark as some of his others, it’s still a really engaging story and one worth returning to due to its morals about sharing, community and obsession.

The Twits (1980)

“What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.”

If there was ever more proof needed that fashion and style trends are circular in nature, the opening line of The Twits is evidence enough. I was going to say that the rest doesn’t really apply, but then again, it’s about incredibly vile, stupid people doing incredibly vile, stupid things, so maybe there are parallels to modern society?

Mr and Mrs Twit are retired monkey trainers who now spend their days playing mean pranks on one another, commanding their caged monkeys to do tricks upside down, and painting glue on trees to catch birds for their weekly Bird Pie. It seems that no one can stop their deranged activities, until one of the monkeys comes up with a plan to get revenge.

They are two of the most disgusting characters in literature, and not just in Dahl, but oddly engaging. The moral here is about being a good person, and contains the famous analysis that it doesn’t matter what you look like, but people with good thoughts will always appear beautiful, while nasty, toxic thoughts will poison you and make you look unattractive. There’s more than a touch of surrealism about this one, but it’s also quite funny, and I particularly enjoy the scenes where Mrs Twit believes herself to be shrinking thanks to a prank by her husband that’s actually pretty well executed.

All in all, in diving back into Roald Dahl I’m realising that there’s perhaps a lot more of these books than I thought. I’d never really associated any of them as having morals, save for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which really lays it on thick, but these are definitely books that have something to teach you. While aimed at children, and notable as much of Dahl’s work is for having adults who are fundamentally useless, there’s definitely cause for adults to return to their childhood and have another look at these unusual, dark and yet somehow charming stories.

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“Being A Beast” by Charles Foster (2016)

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“I am a human.”

Humans have a confusing relationship with every other animal species on the planet. There’s nothing else quite like us, which is either a good or bad thing. Some other animals we’ve domesticated, others we watch with awe, and quite often we anthropomorphise them and give them tweed jackets and a knowledge and society they can’t possibly possess. Charles Foster has decided he wants to get to know animals better and so begins a mission to become something else, as best he can. This book documents his attempts.

To achieve this, Foster must try to think like other species. This is easier said than done, as other animals experience the world in ways we cannot imagine. Some have better noses than us, some are faster, and while the base urges are the same, they differ enough in their methods of completion to make it all a bit futile. Nonetheless, Foster gives it a go, taking on the roles of five different animals.

He digs a hole in the side of a hill and eats earthworms to mimic a badger. He swims through Devon rivers at night catching fish with his teeth to get to know otters better. He raids the bins of East London for leftovers to become a fox. He allows hunters to chase him down across the Scottish highlands to know how a red deer feels, and finally he makes an attempt to become a swift, eventually tracking them all the way to Africa.

As nature writing goes, it’s a very unique piece and there’s no getting away from that, but my primary thought throughout is, “What sort of breakdown is this man having, and why is no one coming to his aid?” Sleeping in bushes and shitting on riversides is one thing, but swallowing mouthfuls of insects from the tops of trees just because he’s seen birds do it, and leaping at voles whenever he sees a tiny hint of movement is not, in my opinion, the behaviour of a man with all his faculties in tact. I don’t think we ever really needed to know in so much detail what worms taste like.

Unfortunately, while I like the concept of the book, I don’t find Foster particularly likeable. Most of this stems from the fact that, for many years, he was a hunter and while he’s now obviously changed his mind on the subject, in the long passage where he’s describing what it’s like to track and kill a deer, there’s a barely-disguised glee regarding the whole thing. I’m not exactly a pacifist, and I’m certainly not a vegetarian, but I’m against killing wild animals for “sport”, and I can find no entertainment in it. Foster must also have a very understanding wife, as occasionally his children join him on his jaunts. One of his sons lives with him in their badger sett, and he also tells all his children that, when they need the toilet, to go and do it on the river banks like an otter would. At one point he doesn’t shave, cut his hair or trim his toenails for months so he can feel more like a deer with matted, mud-filled hair and overgrown hooves.

There are some interesting facts up for grabs about these animals though, and while Foster attempts to refrain from giving them personalities and emotions, some still slip through. However, he’s more objective than many nature writers, and we get a lot of facts and figures about how animals may experience their environments. Much of it, of course, is theory – we can’t really know what happens inside a fox’s brain when it smells a particular scent, or quite how swifts cope living at speeds we cannot imagine.

All in all, I find that a good piece of exploratory non-fiction should come to a fascinating conclusion and teach us something new. Foster basically ends by saying that trying to be an animal is fruitless and we can never know what it’s like to be another species. Which, frankly, seemed obvious from the start and made me wonder what part I played in his mental breakdown by buying the book. Definitely an intriguing concept for nature writing, but worryingly handled.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.