Curriculum Vital

    Much better than having teeth pulled
    Demon Dentist, by David Walliams

    The former Liverpool manager Gerard Houillier once suggested that a young French player he'd just bought had the potential to become the new Zinedine Zidane. It was not the first time a manager had hailed a player in this manner, but it remains one of the more ludicrous: Bruno Cheyrou was not the new Zidane, nor even the new David Batty. His two-year spell at Liverpool was so quiet he could have been playing in a library. Now retired, he will forever be a byword for ridiculous analogies. The world of football, though, is not known for well-reasoned or articulate postulations. Writers, by contrast, tend to be more rational, not to say original. Thus, when I read that David Walliams was 'a new Roald Dahl' I couldn't help but frown.

    Certainly Walliams' illustrations bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Quentin Blake, whose ragged strokes of genius complement so many Dahl stories. More importantly, Walliams' mixture of heartbreaking poverty and bizarre evil are Dahl-esque, too. In Demon Dentist, for example, Walliams combines the wickedness of The Witches, the warm familial bonds of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the nighttime terror of The BFG. In this entertaining if often overblown book it is the second ingredient that delights most.

    Alfie and his dad are poor. The latter, handicapped by weak lungs after a lifetime of working in a coal mine, loves his 'pup' with great tenderness. With no television or electronic gadgets, he entertains Alfie with fantastic tales. Now, though, as he approaches his 13th birthday, Alfie finds these stories no longer excite him the way they used to. Worse, he has been keeping a secret from his dad: he has been skipping his terrifying dentist appointments for six tartar-filled years.

    Things (except Alfie's teeth) are fine until a new and mysterious dentist rolls into town. Miss Root is the ro - sorry, source of the frightening adventure that follows. Soon, the local kids begin finding dead animals and other horrors under their pillows where once the tooth fairy left a few coins. Worse, the effervescent Winnie, the social service worker who comes to look after Alfie's dad, has booked an appointment for our young hero with this sinister, black-eyed plaque-scraper.

    A simple enough plot, you might think, and yet it lasts for 440 pages. How? A mix of VERY LARGE FONTS to depict various shouts and screams; a generous division of chapters; and, after Alfie ends up in a cave, two black pages to emphasise the totality of the darkness. I don't mind this kind of zaniness. What gets my eyes rolling is that other writing steroid: a quantity of storyline padding that would make Charles Dickens blush. At one point, for example, Alfie, desperate to avoid the dreaded chair, tries to run away from Winnie. Winnie mounts her moped and gives chase... for 51 pages. Similarly, the poignancy of the ending is diluted by the fact that it should have come about 30 pages earlier. As for epilogues, they're fine for War and Peace, but not for children's books.

    Overall, the quality of the writing and illustrations and the relationship between Alfie and his dad trump the story's excessiveness. Dentists everywhere will despair, but kids will fear all things dental after reading Demon Dentist. 


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