Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Matilda by Roald Dahl

 

I can't help but feel that every teen who likes dark academia secretly has a copy of this book moldering somewhere in their bookcase. MATILDA is like the OG dark academia book, and so many things about it shaped tropes I still love today: shy and bookish heroines who are quietly brave; evil schools; strong female friendships; and off the wall crazysauce. It's a scathing criticism of the cruelty of English schools, but it's also a story of female empowerment.

Every once in a while I get criticism for my middle grade reviews. People will say things like, "What do you expect, this is a book for children?" Which, if you ask me, is rather condescending, because it suggests that some authors are assuming children are too dumb to recognize inferior goods when they come across them. Which, to be fair, some don't. There's no accounting for taste. But plenty of middle grade is good and does hold up, so the "it's a book for children and adults shouldn't criticize!" remark really doesn't add up, and age group really oughtn't to be a shield against criticism for things like character development and cohesiveness of the plot. Just my two cents.

MATILDA is one of those rare books where I actually think the movie is better, just because of the casting and how the movie adds some chilling scenes (such as when they sneak into Trunchbull's house) and answers some questions that the book really didn't. I also personally like the ending of the movie better, but I won't say why outright because spoilers. It's the eponymous story of a girl named Matilda who is incredibly brilliant and is already reading things like Dickens and doing large mathematical sums in her head before she even turns five. Her parents are awful people-- the mom makes money from playing bingo and the dad is a shady used car salesman-- and neither of them like her much at all, and at worst, their behavior could be considered neglectful and emotionally abusive.

Before she goes to Crunchem Hall, all of her education was self-taught, mostly from a kindly librarian who helped her pick out famous classics despite being quietly fascinated by her intelligence. School ought to have been the place where she felt like coming home, but because of the sadistic and abusive headmistress, it is a place of terror. I think Dahl did a good job making her seeing fantastically but believably evil. The chokey was always incredibly terrifying: it's a cupboard where Trunchbull would lock up "bad" students. The walls were paved with broken glass and the door had nails in it, so if you didn't stand perfectly straight in the airtight cupboard, you'd get all lacerated. Yikes. Then there's Miss Honey's story and the implied molestation and abuse there, and it's all honestly pretty chilling.

So you can get what happens. Matilda ends up in a war with the Trunchbull. The movie is way more emotionally intense but the book does a great job too and the ending is still pretty satisfying. I loved the characters of Matilda and Miss Honey and I thought Matilda's family was believably awful because we've all met oafish jerks like that. Roald Dahl is a great children's author but this has always been one of my favorite books of his, partially because it's more believable and partially because it features a girl protagonist who is allowed to be strong and victorious, and not beaten down, which makes the story feel both timeless and incredibly progressive, all at the same time.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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