three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
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The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl

A-StorytellerDonald Sturrock, a filmmaker, has directed more than 30 documentaries, including one on Roald Dahl, whom he knew well. This is his first book, and the first biography authorized by Dahl's estate.

The Topic: The creator of characters such as Willy Wonka and Matilda was quite a character himself. Roald Dahl had flown and fallen in World War II air battles, married a famous Hollywood actress, and published wickedly dark stories in Playboy all before he even thought of turning to children's literature. Everyone who knew him understood he could be spectacularly selfish and impolite, but most of them loved him and desired his company nonetheless. Sturrock, a documentary filmmaker who came to know Dahl and his family at the end of the storyteller's life, attempts to capture all of the man's contradictions--from the misfortunes that befell his family to the literary success he experienced later in life.
Simon & Schuster. 672 pages. $30. ISBN: 9781416550822

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Sturrock's achievement is to have produced a ‘warts and all' portrait of Dahl, which does not shrink from the actions, utterances and character traits his detractors would cite, but still allows us to understand why people were charmed by Dahl, why he was so spectacularly successful as a bedder of women, how he became a friend of movie stars, millionaires, statesmen and distinguished writers--in short, why he was loved. ... It makes you want to revisit the prose of the storyteller himself." Nicolette Jones

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]his is a hugely readable portrait that examines vividly and sympathetically the life and work of a difficult, complex author who was adored by millions of children, loathed by many adults, and was possibly a genius." Graham Lord

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a major literary biography, immensely satisfying to read and worthy of its complex subject. ... Sturrock's Storyteller is so packed with intimate details, sharply intelligent commentary and surprising revelations ... that it should be read immediately by anyone interested in Dahl, the ins and outs of modern publishing or the art of biography. I can't sing its praises enough." Michael Dirda

Spectator (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sturrock is a sympathetic writer, and has made splendid use of his access to the archive. Here is marshalled all one needs to know (and, at 650 pages, quite a bit one doesn't) about this strange man and his remarkable life." Sam Leith

New York Magazine 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is, like Dahl, both lovable and annoying: The writing is often repetitious, the tone occasionally hagiographic, and it leaps around in chronology. But no matter. Dahl's life story, it turns out, is less a normal human biography than a series of grisly and fabulous yarns that stretch back 30 or so generations." Sam Anderson

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Even if the [Dahl's first book for a young audience, James and the Giant Peach] had never seen the light of day and his new career had never taken off, the remarkable life that Dahl had led up to that point--he was a World War II fighter pilot, worked in wartime British intelligence and married actress Patricia Neal--might in itself have merited a biography. Now we have Donald Sturrock's Storyteller, which succeeds in encompassing the pre-Peach life and the long, productive period that followed, giving us a sprawling entertainment packed with anecdote and incident." William Georgiades

Guardian (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"Certainly by choosing Sturrock as their chronicler the Dahls have appointed someone whose fandom they can count on ... and who can be guaranteed to tell the story of his difficult personality as gently as possible. The result is by no means a whitewash, but it is an attempt to nudge the picture in favour of a man who, despite so many reasons to dislike him, remains one of the greatest forces for good in children's literature of the past 50 years." Kathryn Hughes

Critical Summary

Reviewers welcomed a new biography of Dahl on the twentieth anniversary of his death. Even though Sturrock's is not the first, his access to the Dahl family and their archives helps him to deliver a more thorough book on the children's author than has yet been attempted. Critics tended to agree that Sturrock has made great use of the new material, balancing the daffy, avuncular Dahl of the books with the very dark man he proved to be in real life. But some reviewers felt that the book's prose was only so-so and that Sturrock treads on eggshells when it comes to certain (more lurid) aspects of Dahl's life, suggesting Storyteller may not be the best read for those who are not already interested in Dahl or children's literature.