The Twits by Roald Dahl

Rating 8.5/10
If you love to hate some truly nasty villains you will love, and indeed hate The Twits.

The Twits is one of the shorter books in the Dahl canon, and rather unique as it focuses almost exclusively upon its two principle villains, the totally vile Mr. and Mrs. Twit.

The book begins with a protracted description of both nasty pieces of work, from Mr. Twit's truly disgusterous beard, to the fact that Mrs. Twit made herself ugly through thinking ugly thoughts (a rather nice object lesson). The book then continues with descriptions of the various tricks the two play on each other, all in their own ways grotesque and wonderfully weird (from wormy spaghetti to frogs in the bed) and their habit of slaughtering song birds for bird pie each week.

One thing I have noticed in a lot of Dahl's writing is that, with the exception of Mr. Hazel in Danny the Champion of the World (his only completely none fantasy children's novel), he is able to write villainous human characters in a very inhuman way. This indeed is typified in ‘The Witches’ when the main character is told that witches are not actually ordinary women, they simply are able to look and act like women but are demons in human shape.

There is definitely a place for complex, shades of grey characters, even in children's books. However, there is equally a place for villains who are just out and out bad and who we can applaud getting their just deserts, especially when their fate is of their own  making, indeed this is something seen far less in children's literature these days. In his grotesque, inhuman villains, Dahl manages to create characters that are totally bad, but also highly engaging and full of quirks, whit and personality, a difficult fete that many competent writers do not always succeed at.

Two aspects of the Twits I especially like which really show how well they work as characters are their lovely, false affectionate pet names (especially when being vile to each other), and the way that they take absolute delight in not only tricking each other in profoundly nasty ways, but gleefully revealing to the other one exactly what they've done: Mrs. Twit's wonderful screech of "because it was worms!" when she reveals to her husband why his spaghetti was bitter tasting always makes me laugh for just how much she obviously enjoys being that nasty (particularly in the audio version I have read by Simon Callow who definitely puts some serious bile behind the shriek).

The second part of the book details the Twits' habit of killing and eating song birds for bird pie each week, something which is plainly done as much out of malice as it is out of hunger, and the Twit's mistreatment of Mugglewump the monkey and his family. I must admit that while the bird pie was as humorously nasty as expected (especially the occasion Mr. Twit threatens to eat four school boys instead), the monkey section of the book felt a little weak.

We are told that the Twits want to use the monkeys in an upside down circus and force them to do tricks, and we have one example of this. This feels a little thin. One of Dahl's major strengths as an author is his ability to create sympathetic characters with only a brief amount of description, and likewise, show a level of suffering that is often quite dark with a very limited amount of language. Yet, only Mugglewump really gets any personality at all (and that only of wanting revenge on the Twits), and the brief example of the monkeys lives with the Twits really doesn't say much, far from the brutal pathos Dahl shows when discussing the very real distress of some of his child characters like the brief but uncomfortable description of James trying to lift a heavy wood chopper in James and the Giant Peach.

Perhaps it is that Dahl was less comfortable writing monkeys as relatable characters as opposed to children, however I do feel a brief description of the monkeys missing Africa or of spending a night together whispering of freedom would've given them a little more personality than they had.

Finally, the book ends with the appearance of the Roly-poly bird, a magical African bird that also appears in some other of Dahl's writings, and the grand plan enacted by Mugglewump, his family and a host of birds to turn the Twits upside down and stick them to their house ceiling using their bird catching glue.

The execution of the plan is explained with a wonderful frantic urgency, and it is the one area where Mugglewump at least achieves a small amount of character, equally more than enough time (though not too much), along with some lovely and unique Dahl language, is spent on the Twit's final fate, standing on their heads stuck to the floor and shrinking down to nothing, naturally cursing each other all the way. I particularly like the last paragraph which explains how a man called Fred came to read the electric meter, found the Twits were gone and then the book finishes with the sentence "And everyone, including Fred shouted hurray!" (I always wonder what the Twits did to poor Fred).

My only issue with the ending is that with the lack of exploration of the circus theme, turning the Twits upside down did not have quite the effect that Dahl intended, very different say from the giants who loved eating humans being forced to live on fowl tasting Snozcumbers at the end of the BFG.

Over all The Twits is a wonderfully gruesome tale of two nasty characters that get their comeuppance, indeed in many ways The Twits feels like a modern fairy tale, the ogre or giant and his wife living their brutal and nasty domestic life out in the woods that eventually are vanquished at the end by their own hubris. The problem however, is that this is all it is!

With most of Dahl's books, there is a sense of space, of wonder and of worlds unexplored, even in his marginally more serious offerings like Matilda. The Twits however feels a little claustrophobic, indeed where as the traditional fairy tale usually begins with a hero or heroine going into the woods to find the giant, the Twits spends all it's time there, and (due to the lack of time spent on the closest thing the book has to a hero), doesn't have much else. Even the Roly-poly bird who elsewhere serves as the guide to unknown and magical places, feels like just a plot function to instigate the monkey’s revenge.

This is not to say The Twits is a bad book, just a little thinner than most of Dahl's, and if you love to hate some truly nasty villains you will love, and indeed hate The Twits.

This The Twits book review was written by

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Have you read The Twits?

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The Twits reader reviews

from Wales

10-stars

The Twits is a very good book if you love playing nasty tricks on people. I lol at all the creepy stuff and it is funny when they play hideous pranks on little kids to scare them away.

from England

10-stars

Very nice book and really descriptive.

from New Zealand

9-stars

It was funny and I like pranks.

from Nepal

9-stars

The revenges and the pranks seem to be too fun.

from England

9-stars

This book is about two twits who are pranksters and they are always play hideous pranks and they scare little children and don't have windows in their house to look out from.

from Northern Ireland

10-stars

I enjoyed all the creepy stuff.

9.4/10 from 7 reviews

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