The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is a curious book in the Roald Dahl canon. It doesn’t quite fall squarely into either of his two primary genres, children’s novels and stories, and adult short stories. It’s a collection of seven stories with different characters, plot-realizations, and flavours. Unique, yet it holds together most effectively as an anthology. Unlike his short stories, though, and a fair few of the children’s books as well, there’s nothing especially macabre, grotesque, or terrifying about any of the stories here. Other Dahl themes, though, are very much present in the stories narrated here: a love for animals and sensitivity to the trials and tribulations of children, like bullying ( (The Boy Who Talked to Animals, The Swan), talents bordering on the supernatural (The Hitchhiker, The Wonderful story of Henry Sugar), and interesting if somewhat sensationalized non-fiction (The Mildenhall Treasure, Lucky Break, and A Piece of Cake).That makes seven. Lucky Break, incidentally, is a condensation of two autobiographical novels, Boy and Going Solo, which are wonderful reads as well. There’s nothing that this man has written that is not worth reading, frankly. I highly recommend his work as a great gift for kids of any age. Especially the ones above forty. Start anywhere, it doesn’t matter, they’re all brilliant. Well, perhaps The Charlie books and The Witches for kids, and Tales of the Unexpected and Switch Bitch for adults sort of stand out.
Still, I picked The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar for a reason, it was the first Roald Dahl book I read. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be most people’s first pick, and was definitely the one parents bought for their kids. It was even made into a god-awful film starring Gene Wilder; Dahl was disgusted with it and disowned it completely. That’s why its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, was never made into a movie; Dahl, and later the Dahl estate, wouldn’t allow it. The 2005 remake, on the other hand, starring Johnny Depp, is quite a passable remake, and stays completely true to the book, inserting only one extra plotline of any significance. But I digress. I’m reviewing Henry Sugar here. I should say though that since I’ve read all of Dahl’s work many times over digressions are more than likely. He was brilliant, captivating, disturbing, but most of all, fun! Kids the world over have him to thank for hours of reading pleasure. His flights of imagination are really something else. He entertained generations in a way that Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton never could. There’s absolutely no doubting that Roald Dahl was a massive influence on the biggest literary phenomenon of the first decade of the 21st century. Err, that’s Harry Potter, in case you were wondering. There’s a certain formula to writing children’s books, a particular combination of the things that appeal to a young mind most. This could be anything from magic, to triumphing over corrupt adult authority, redemption through love, trial by fire, helping a friend in need, and of course, crime and mystery. Get it right, and you’ve got a bestseller on your hands. Of course, for every J.K Rowling and Roald Dahl, there’s a hundred Nancie Booths and Larry Bonds. Blast, I’ve digressed again. Anyway, if you’re interested in this particular book click on read more. I’ll try and stick to the point. (Warning: The rest of the review may contain spoilers.)
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar opens with The Boy Who Talked With Animals, which is about, funnily enough, a boy who can communicate with assorted non-human critters. Specifically in this case to save a giant sea turtle from winding up on plates at a fancy hotel somewhere in the Caribbean. It seems like a kids story but its moral message is a lot stronger than that. Nothing like another story of his called Pig, however. That is a whole lot more graphic, and while you may not rush straight out and join P.E.T.A, it gets you thinking in that direction. You don’t have to be an animal-rights extremist to support that. Dahl makes it very clear that what he opposes is cruelty to animals, not non-vegeterianism. He himself was quite the connoisseur of gourmet food and wine, not to mention his passion for chocolate. Read his family cookbook, Memories of Food at Gypsy House. It’s full of interesting little tidbits. I had no idea that you could actually hear a lobster scream when you boiled it alive, although come to think of it, it’s not that surprising. He advocates a more…humane approach to the slaughter and consumption of our fellow (meat-bearing) beings we share this planet with. But I digress again. Back to the book.
The Hitchhiker is definitely one of Dahl’s better known short stories. It’s told in the first person; a wealthy writer driving to London in a brand new B.M.W picks up a commuter who encourages him to speed. Caught and fined by the cops, the hitchhiker then reveals his remarkable talent to his benefactor. It’s very clever, and like all stories of great talent, its presented in a way that makes you want to be that good. The aspirational motivation, essentially. I won’t give it away, so the pleasure of the read is still all yours.
The Swan is the only really twisted story, involving as it does a precocious child named Peter Watson who runs into two local tormentors, Ernie and Raymond, who march Watson around at the point of a gun, thereby alleviating their boredom on a weekend. They shoot a beautiful swan, dismember it, tie its wings to Peter’s arms, and force him to climb a tree so they can see him “fly.” Then something magical happens. Is it a story of redemption? That’s not a common theme in Dahl’s work. Usually villains get their comeuppance, or protagonists come to a cropper in rather macabre and unpleasant ways. Like in the Mildenhall Treasure, where greed gets the better of a man of usually decent sensibilities.
The eponymous story then, about Henry Sugar, is the longest and cleverest, and lives up to its self-titling quite well. It combines two perenially popular themes, a decadent western lifestyle with eastern mysticism. The protagonist, our hero Henry Sugar, is a wealthy gadfly, bent on the typical pursuits of the idle rich, with precious little to do except invent pleasurable ways to waste time, usually involving unconventional and often ridiculous bets. Without going into details, he manages to acquire “yogic” powers that enable him to see through cards. I’m sure you can see the relevance there for someone who likes to gamble. However, the acquisition of these powers modify his personality, his entire weltanshauung, really. So Henry Sugar decides to become a modern day Robin Hood, robbing casinos the world over with his preternatural abilities, and using the plunder to setup orphanages. Sadly though, the book glosses over most of his adventures traveling around the world. If you’re interested in writing, you might want to read the book and then give filling in the blanks a shot. It’d be interesting writing. Not to mention research, if you can somehow figure a way for someone to sponsor you. Life is rarely that accommodating, though. I’d be more than happy to oblige, though, if my as-yet-unknown benefactor happens to stumble upon this review.
The last two stories are more-or-less autobiographical, and while interesting, he goes into a lot more detail in his two actual autobiographies, Boy and Going Solo. I’d recommend those if you want a good read.Most people find A Piece of Cake disappointing, and despite the kind things that C.S.Forster says about it, and its exciting setting describing a forced crash-landing somewehre in the Libyan desert (Dahl was a R.A.F pilot during World War II) it is somewhat insipid. Still, many of his other short stories more than make up for what A Piece of Cake may or may not lack. Honestly, I can’t recommend them enough. His stories and characters have given me hours of pleasure, and I’ve found the Roald Dahl short story Omnibus to be the perfect gift for many a bookwyrm friend. He’s a brilliant, twisted, writer, and easily pips Jeffrey Archer to the title of master of the twist-in-the-tale. Read Lamb to the Slaughter, The Umbrella Man, Switch Bitch, The Syrian Leper and many others and you’ll soon see why. Or, in fact, why not start with The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More?
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org