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Review of Matilda

by Roald Dahl; illus. by Quentin Blake
Intermediate     Viking Kestrel     240 pp.
10/88     0-670-82439-9     $14.95

Caricature and satire are not in themselves undesirable forms of writing for children, but Roald Dahl, admittedly a remarkably gifted author, sometimes carries them too far in expressing his bleak view of human nature. The story of Matilda is that of a child, neglected by her parents, who is a student at a school run by a fiendish headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. The precocious Matilda has read Dickens and Hemingway, can do complicated mathematics, and is clearly a genius at the age of five. She is completely ignored by her parents; her father is a complacently dishonest used-car dealer, and her mother plays Bingo and watches television when not bleaching her hair. Matilda tires of her treatment and vows revenge — by gluing her father’s hat on her head with Superglue or scaring the whole family with a talking parrot in the chimney. When she reaches school, only her teacher, Miss Honey, recognizes Matilda’s abilities. Clever Matilda harnesses her brain power and triumphantly overthrows Miss Trunchbull; at the same time the girl helps out dear Miss Honey and gets rid of Matilda’s awful family. The book is sometimes very funny but funny in the same way that cruel practical jokes are. The plot is minimal; the characters are caricatures; and the vulgarity and offensiveness are compounded with juicily gleeful descriptions of Miss Trunchbull foaming at the mouth, the nasty brown roots of Matilda’s mother’s bleached hair, and the violence of Miss Trunchbull’s punishments. Joining in the rather nasty laughter or appearing hopelessly priggish in denouncing the book are both unenviable alternatives. But child neglect countered by revenge, however funny and however justified, is just not a nice theme. ANN A. FLOWERS

From the January/February 1989 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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