The Witches
Roald Dahl

I didn’t think I was going to like this book, but after the vicious first chapter, which launches into a hectic witch scare and details how these ‘very real’ women ‘who could even be your teacher’ like to boil chil­dren alive and murder them in other cre­ative ways — a chapter that quickly estab­lished that my 4 year old would not be lis­tening to it, and after the slow, obvious setup, I found the heart of the story to be quite good, and there are things about it that I love.

Spoilers follow

Separation and Build Up

In my opinion, the setup is the main flaw in this oth­er­wise ter­rific story, but as it goes with most prob­lems of this kind, the solu­tion isn’t easy. Here the writer faced the chal­lenge of set­ting the con­text and giving spe­cific details: witches exist, they dis­guise them­selves in spe­cific ways, and they meet annu­ally. To jump right from this infor­ma­tion to a grand hotel ball­room where a hun­dred laides file into a meeting would be too obvious — For there to be any sus­penseful rev­e­la­tion there must be sep­a­ra­tion of time, and if pos­sible, place. So Dahl spends some time wan­dering, and to me at least, it was clear that he was doing so, and in these moments I almost lost interest.

The boy’s dis­covery that the women in the meeting room are witches is a rev­e­la­tion more for the boy than for the reader, because the boy’s expe­ri­ence, while com­pressed for us, has allowed for time and space to pass. Once this scene is over, and the dis­covery is made, the story takes off and never slows down. In fact, there are scenes much more piv­otal than this, which leads me to think that too much emphasis is placed on this one.

Bruno Jenkins and Unsympathetic Characters

As soon as I read the descrip­tion of Bruno Jenkins — the fat, greedy boy who liked to bully others, I knew he was going down. This isn’t sur­prising, of course, and it got me thinking about the ways that we inno­cently use enter­tain­ment to exe­cute on those subtle prej­u­dices that we would rarely admit to, and how writers become accom­plices in this. I’ve read four books this year, and they all fea­ture dis­lik­able people suf­fering pun­ish­ments that we are some­what led to believe they deserve simply because of their faults. I’ll digress for moment and say that in my first book, I didn’t follow this con­ven­tion, and at least one reader was very angry with me.

What I Loved

For­mula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse­maker” is about the coolest thing I’ve ever read in the Eng­lish lan­guage. There had better be a band, or at least an album, with that name.

Also, I love that the main char­acter was turned into a mouse, and that he quite enjoyed it and did not regret losing either his boy­hood or his longer life span. In the end, there was no des­perate struggle to fight against reality — to regain what was lost, instead there was a com­plete embrace of the new. That’s a beau­tiful thing.