Ah, 2012. A new year in which to start strong and eventually fall off on my reviews. Last year, I didn't review over half of my books, and I'm regretting that now, since that means there is no review of The BFG, my literary introduction to the bizarre and sometimes cruel world of Roald Dahl.
Dahl's universe operates in extremes, largely populated by grotesques and beauties. Matilda's ignorant, crooked family and the kid-hating, shotputting teacher Ms Trunchbull fall in the former category, while Matilda and her teacher Ms Honey fall in the latter--but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Matilda is an extremely precocious little girl, growing up in a family that doesn't value intelligence and force-feeds television to her 24 hours a day (and, as an aside, Dahl apparently REALLY hated TV, to judge from this and Mike Teevee in Willy Wonka). Matilda, four, seeks asylum in books, and by the time she starts school, has read all sorts of things--Dickens, Steinbeck, Hemingway, C.S. Lewis. When she finally goes to school, she finds a sympathizer in the saintly-but-weak Ms. Honey, and an antagonizer in the cruel, abusive Ms. Trumbull.
Dahl presents Ms. Trumbull as an exaggerated monster who picks children up by their hair and hurls them out windows, but in spite of her absurdity, Ms. Trumbull is a wonderfully dark, wicked creation--entirely unambiguous and virtually unassailable. As Matilda says, when asked why parents never complain:
"Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it's unbelievable. No parent is going to believe this pigtail story, not in a million years. Mine wouldn't. They'd call me a liar."
Matilda eventually discovers that she has special powers, never given a name in the book but which are clearly some form of telekinesis, and, using them, she's able to overthrow Ms. Trumbull, help Ms. Honey and, eventually, even find a new family. It's childish wish fulfillment, but it's handled in such a way that any child would relate to--surely everyone reading this has tried moving something simply by staring at it, and, on an even more universal level, every person feels that they are special in ways that those around them don't understand, a theme also present in The BFG and Willy Wonka. Matilda's victory may come by supernatural means, but the scaffolding upon which it is built is natural and universal.
p.s. Quentin Blake's illustrations, both in this and The BFG are fantastic and perfectly established Dahl's mood before I read a word.