People who remember Roald Dahl as merely the nice man who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would no doubt be in for a bit of an unpleasant surprise were they to pick up Someone Like You. With more than a tad of the macabre and indeed on occasion the grotesque, in this short story anthology, Dahl reveals the slightly nasty personality which tapped so well into the delight children so often display at incidents of cruelty. The last collection of short fiction that I read was Stella Gibbons’ Christmas Cold Comfort Farm – I could hardly have found a sharper contrast than by making this my next choice. While Stella Gibbons’ book was a hymn to security and family values, Dahl’s entire mission statement appears to be to transport the reader beyond the bounds of what is comfortable.The first story features a bet where a man is manipulated into wagering his daughter’s hand in marriage over the correct identification of a bottle of claret, there is also one of Dahl’s better known stories Lamb to the Slaughter where a forsaken wife kills her husband with a frozen piece of meat and then cooks the evidence. One of the more painful entries is Galloping Foxley where an old man is tormented by childhood memories when he runs into his erstwhile tormentor – there are more than a few details which suggest a strong autobiographical element. Then there are stories with a slightly more grotesque element, such as Skin where an elderly man with a valuable tattoo is prized more for his body than his own self, or Nude Dimittis where someone is manipulated into an act of barbaric voyeurism. Yet even in the book’s more unpleasant moments, we sense the fun that the writer is having, with stories such as The Great Automatic Grammatizator recalling the wilder creative moments found within Danny Champion of the World or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I think that the true beauty of Someone Like You comes from the way in which the narrator draws the reader in, speaking to them confidentially, so often in the guise of the detached observer, so that we are moved to a kind of complicity even when an act of true repugnance is taking place. These stories may be generally fantastical, but we are encouraged to think of them as scenarios which could truly befall someone and in particular, someone like us. We feel genuine discomfort as the voyeur in Nude Dimittus chips away at the painting to reveal the lady’s undergarments beneath – I let out a gasp of sympathy at the closing lines of Galloping Foxley – a wince of disgust at the sight of the wife’s hand in Man from the South – Roald Dahl reveals himself time and again as a masterful storyteller, his adult fiction no less worthwhile than that which he produced for his younger audience.
There is a certain flavour to the tone in this work that reminds me of Ian Fleming, whose writing I recent suffered through in The Spectre Trilogy, yet despite a similar dismissive attitude towards women and a clear attraction towards the violent, there is greater depth to the motivations of Dahl’s characters, which means that they have weathered the decades far more successfully than the dinosaur James Bond. We sense Mary Maloney’s blank despair as her husband announces his plans to leave her and so we understand how she comes to wield a piece of frozen lamb against him. We are party to Mr Botibol’s frantic logic as he seeks to recoup his losses in A Dip in the Pool and can only shake our heads in rueful dismay as his plan is foiled. So often schemes fall apart in Someone Like You, Dahl seems determined to take us to humanity’s very darkest moments.
There is something very particularly powerful about short fiction – with less apparent ammunition, the writer has to draw events together in a much shorter window but the impact is often only the greater for it. Having read a fair bit of Roald Dahl’s shorter work, I would point out that it is rare to get to the end of a story without the words ‘Oh no’ crossing one’s mind, but that is in many ways merely a proof of Dahl’s precision as a writer. Other than perhaps Dickens, I can think of few others who can equal him as a story-teller. A friend recently expressed surprise when I offhandedly referred to Dahl as a cad but while Someone Like You is a world away from The BFG, it is nonetheless a must-read for connoisseurs of short fiction and a true classic of the genre.
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Published by Penguin on January 1st 1970
Genres: 20th Century, Fiction, General, Grotesque, Horror, Short Stories (single author)
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