Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, By David Sturrock

Roald and the darkest demons
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Usually when biographies have a starry-eyed quality, it makes for a less critical account.

Not so with Sturrock's work, which retains a boyish awe while simultaneously questioning the writer's actions – for instance, his role in helping his first wife, Patricia Neal, recover from a stroke. The regime he imposed on her may have restored her speech and movement, but did it also push her towards alcoholism?

Sturrock also questions Roald Dahl's treatment of his second child, Tessa, after his first, Olivia, died tragically early. This was a damaged man (his own father died when Dahl was extremely young) doing damage to others. He lived with apparent ease in a world of parties and fine wines and country houses, but he was capable of falsely accusing a schoolteacher of abuse. He suffered a plane crash that almost killed him and caused brain damage. Sturrock finds Dahl a man of many contradictions.

But most of all, of course, he was a writer, and it's fascinating to see how bumpy a ride Dahl's career was – how long it took him to get into his stride, after his adult novels bombed and the early interest Disney showed in him failed to lead to anything. If it hadn't been for Neal's income, he would have struggled until those big hits came. Dahl attributed much of his imaginative world to his Norwegian family and his mother's stories, but as Sturrock points out, there were enough demons of Dahl's own to make the magical, dark worlds he created for children.