Review: Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock

At the beginning of the month I mentioned and wittered a little about the fact that I was Reading Roald, in the sense of reading about him rather than reading his books. I finished Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl a few days after writing that post but, as is the way, I’m a few days down the line putting this review together. Not that there’s very much to say except it’s a book that firmly deserves its place in my Roald Dahl and related stuff collection.

The summary is a bit of an obvious one but here it is nonetheless:

The authorised biography of one of the greatest storytellers of all time, written with complete access to the archives stored in the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.

Roald Dahl is one of the greatest storytellers of all time. He pushed children’s literature into uncharted territory and almost twenty years after his death his popularity continues to grow – worldwide sales of his books have now topped 100 million. The man behind the stories, however, remains an enigma. Dahl was a single-minded adventurer, an eternal child, and his public persona was often controversial.

To his readers, though, Dahl was always a hero and his stories have had an impact on the lives and imaginations of generations of children. Since his death his reputation has been transformed. Critics too now celebrate his wild imagination, quirky humour and linguistic elegance; figures like Willy Wonka, the BFG and the Grand High Witch are immortal literary creations.

In this masterly biography, Donald Sturrock reveals many hitherto hidden aspects of Roald Dahl’s life: his terrifying experiences as a fighter pilot; the mental anguish caused by the death of his seven-year-old daughter; his work for military intelligence at the end of the war and more. Written with exclusive access to his private papers and manuscripts as well as with reference to hundreds of newly-discovered letters, Dahl lives on every page of this utterly compelling book, which reveals the man as we’ve never seen him before.

I would love to have swapped places with Donald Sturrock when he was researching and writing this book. What a privilege it must have been to have the access he did to Dahl’s papers and the thoughts and opinions of those close to him. I have to admit to being more than a little envious, the biographer’s life is an interesting one!

If it wasn’t obvious already, I am a huge Dahl fan and I adore his books and even the films that were inspired by them (The Witches is one of my forever favourites, I must have watched it a billion times when I was young). I cannot WAIT to start reading the novels to the girls and I may seek out The Giraffe, Pelly and Me and Esio Trot quite soon.

One of my very favourite of Dahl’s work was Boy, his colourful autobiography and it is the one which I have the most clear memories of, for some reason. I can see the sweets in the sweetshop and the terrifying spectre of the shopkeeper as well as his Dad with the fork and knife combination he needed due to only having one arm. I can also remember Dahl’s differing experiences at his schools and with all this in mind I went into Sturrock’s biography with a range of expectations.

Where Boy was entertaining, Storyteller is just completely inspiring and insightful, it’s almost as if Sturrock couldn’t bare to leave a single detail out and episodes of Dahl’s life are told with intricate detail and without bias, in many instances, though it is clear that Sturrock is a great admirer of his work and the man himself. The book begins with a little background information, about his near relatives and leads all the way to his death. I feel like Sturrock painted Roald Dahl as a human being, more than anything else. Not a genius or someone to be revered but a person who did what they did and had as many bad traits (perhaps even more) as good ones. More than anything else Sturrock shows us Dahl the storyteller, a trait which seems to have been apparent even in his earliest days, although there is a pivotal moment which changes his desires and leads him to his career.

I felt anguish and empathy for Dahl as he struggled with adult literature, his short stories never making the splash he had hoped and I felt a little saddened by his actions after his wife suffered her stroke. When his daughter Olivia dies, there is an extract from his own diaries at the time which is all that anyone needs to read, I think.

Sturrock’s work is exceptional and extremely in depth. His ability to fill his work with quotes, letters and diary entries from Dahl and those close to him makes it seem like a genuinely full portrait, no holds barred, and at the end, there is a fully rounded image of Roald Dahl in my mind, created by a mixture of his words, the words of those around him and Sturrock’s detailed yet cohesive way with words.

Rating: ★★★★★