Over to You by Roald Dahl | Book review

William Skidelsky enjoys an early collection of derring-do stories by the classic children's writer

Originally published in 1946, this is Roald Dahl's first collection of stories, written after his discharge from active service in the RAF in 1942. Dahl's brief career as a pilot was perilously action-packed – he crash-landed in Libya and fought in several tumultuous air battles – and these near-death experiences form the basis of many of these stories. The most straightforwardly autobiographical is "Over To You", a pilot's first-person account of crashing in the desert, narrowly escaping his plane's flaming wreckage and recuperating in a military hospital. Another is about a pilot who bails out following a collision only to discover that his German adversary is parachuting into the same field as him. (Things don't end well.) These two stories, almost Hemingway-esque in their spare muscularity, are so unlike anything Dahl subsequently wrote that reading them is disconcerting. How, you wonder, did he get from here to the BFG?

But elsewhere there are clear signs of the direction he was to take. In "Madame Rosette", three off-duty pilots on a rambunctious night out in Cairo end up freeing the prostitutes from a brothel presided over by a grotesquely obese madame – a character straight out of Dahl's children's fiction. The collection's best story, "An African Story", is only tangentially about flying, its bulk taken up by an old Kenyan man's gruesomely comic yarn involving his neighbour, a cow and a black mambo. The collection as a whole acts as a reminder that a writer's trajectory is never set in stone: Dahl might well have decided that he was more interested in straight action adventure than snakes and grotesque authority figures, although one is left feeling grateful that he made the choices he did.

Contributor

William Skidelsky

The GuardianTramp

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