It’s been a couple of years since I read David Walliams’ “The Demon Dentist” and in that time his reputation as a writer (and his book sales) have continued to soar. Just the other week the Duchess Of Cornwall’s Bookshelves Project celebrated her 70th birthday with a list of the UK’s favourite children’s books. It’s quite a wide-ranging list and Walliams has two titles on it- neither of which I’ve read so I’ve obviously got more treats in store.
I thought “Demon Dentist” was “up there with the best of Dahl” and had everything that a children’s book should have. “Awful Auntie” was his next publication so it might be hoped he’d pushed the quality boundaries further. He hasn’t really and if “DD” is up with the best of Dahl (that’s “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “The Witches” and “Matilda”) then this is nestling in with the mid-range of “The Twits” and “George’s Marvelous Medicine”. I feel these are appropriate comparisons as they both share a one-dimensional overly sadistic undertone which stops this feeling as well rounded as its predecessor.
Set in the dilapidated Saxby Hall in 1933 the twelve year old main character Stella awakes to find her life has changed. Her parents are no longer around and she is being held captive by the monstrous Aunt Alberta, a character without even the slightest drop of humanity who has as a side-kick a giant owl. Agatha wants to claim the Hall as her own and is prepared to murder all around her to get it. Stella has to use the Hall’s past to attempt to thwart her Aunt’s plans. Such misery heaped on Stella becomes disturbing more than funny. Walliams attempts to lighten the atmosphere by having her step temporarily away from life-threatening situations to make some mundane comments to her captor seems jarring to adult readers but most children will no doubt lap this up. I think there’s also an over-reliance on lists to bring out the humour (Walliams does do this well as did Dahl) as here it does not add much to the flow of the novel, which highlights that the plot is sparser this time around. The Tony Ross illustrations are great fun and would add much to the enjoyment, especially the plans and maps.
Children will relish guessing the twists in the plots. He uses a small cast here and at least one character (Gibbons the ancient butler) is under-used. There’s actually a complaint letter at the back of the book from recurring character, shop-owner Raj, who is moaning about his non-appearance in the book because of its 1930s setting and I thought that was written with more sparkle than a chunk of the preceding 400 pages. “Awful Auntie” did fall a little short of my high expectations. I feel that “Demon Dentist” is a better balanced book and has the feel of a lasting children’s classic whilst this over-emphasised dark slapstick to cover up Aunt Agatha’s evil machinations. I expect Walliams to be outrageous but I think he over-eggs it here and loses something in the process. Kids, however, are a different breed and the continuing popularity of things like the film “Home Alone” suggest that this kind of slapstick-under-peril is perennially popular and the 1451 (at time of writing) 5 star reviews on Amazon would suggest I might be a little out of touch here but I just think he’s done and will do better.
Awful Auntie was published by Harper Collins in 2014