Monday, December 24, 2012

Tales of the Unexpected - The Wrap Up

When I set out to read Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, I was excited. As I noted in my introductory video, Dahl was probably my favourite author for most of my childhood, and I was really looking forward to see what his amazing brain had conjured up for adults.

Keen as a bean, I jumped in pretty quickly, devouring the first few stories within a couple of sittings, but was immediately hit with a sense of disappointment. From the first story, it all felt kind of pulpy, like it was written to be devoured and discarded. There were characters I simply couldn't latch on to, and a couple of less than exciting stories right at the front of the collection. I was beginning to wonder what sort of mess I had gotten myself into.

The first story, Taste, was full of unappealing folks and had an ending that predictable from about halfway through the tale, while My Lady Love, My Dove was quite boring for most of the piece (then again, I expect it's quite hard to write an interesting story about bridge), with a twist that was really not that out of the ordinary.By the time I was about a third of the way in to the book, I was feeling a bit cheated. I hadn't really engaged with any of the stories, and certainly hadn't been significantly surprised by any of the endings. My enthusiasm waned, and with moving and various other catastrophes starting to take over my life, I left the book in my handbag, only opening it on long trips when my phone was out of battery.

Then came Skin. I had heard about it vaguely in other collections, but had managed to remain un-spoiled. I've never been one to demand an ending being kept secret, but in this case, I'm glad I had avoided any early revelations. It was creepy and, while a little bit predictable in the final twist, still incredibly satisfying, and easily the highlight of the whole book. (If you don't have time to read it, but would like to see it played out on your computer screen, with Derek Jacobi in the lead role, it's up on YouTube.)

Once Skin was out of the gates, I started to get more and more engaged with Dahl's tales. William and Mary was delightfully wicked, even if it took far too long to get into the swing of things, and Royal Jelly finally delivered the significant degree of surprise I was looking for. Finally, I was beginning to really enjoy myself, rather than meandering along, not really caring.

And then, it was all over. I had finished the book.

Once I finished the last story, I was left feeling like the whole thing had been a bit of an anti-climax. Maybe I was just too excited about reading it when I started out? Perhaps I've read too much Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, and watched too much Wire in the Blood and now my standards for unexpected plot twists are just too high.

But it wasn't just that.

Upon flicking back through the book, I discovered something that made me a little bitter: there was a significant lack of strong female characters.

Roald Dahl, about the time he started writing.
I was shocked. This was the man who gave us Matilda, one of my favourite female heroes! Granted, this series of stories was first published 40 years before the tale of the bookworm girl wonder, but I still struggled to come to grasps with the fact that there was a significant female voice missing from this book. Only a handful of stories had a woman as a main character, and even then they are vengeful, adulterous or murderous or stupid. It was a stark revelation, but every story hangs on the actions of a man. Women are only pure, good-hearted reactors to the actions of a questionable husband or other male character, or having an affair with one. I couldn't help starting to hate the book for what it had done to this childhood idol of mine. I couldn't help thinking to myself, "No! Roald Dahl is better than this!"

And then I remembered that this collection was one of Dahl's first collected works, published only six years after he started writing, just outside of the war years, with second wave feminism at least twenty years away. It wasn't an excuse, but it was an important realisation nonetheless.

If there is one thing that I can take away from this book, it is that it is in no way Roald Dahl's best work. It lacks the surprise of Christie and Doyle, and is also missing the strong characters Dahl became famous for in his later novels. While it left me feeling under-whelmed, it did remind me that crafting a writing career is a long-term process that one will never truly perfect, a fact that a young writer like myself would do well to remember.