Wednesday 29 April 2015

Granny by Anthony Horowitz

Granny by Anthony Horowitz

Illustrated by Tony Ross

Reissued with new illustrations by Walker Books

Joe Warden isn't happy. He has rich, uncaring parents and he’s virtually a prisoner in the huge family mansion, Thattlebee Hall. But his real problem is his granny. Not only is she physically repulsive and unbelievably mean, but she seems to have some secret plan – and that plan involves him. Can Joe thwart Granny’s evil scheme before he’s turned into neoplasmic slime?

‘There are so many ways to upset a grandchild,’ says Granny, to her gang of elderly cronies, swigging beer and whisky and chomping on cigars, over a game of poker. As young Joe eavesdrops from the landing, he hears them gleefully swapping stories of the terrible jumpers they've knitted, the wet kisses they've slapped on unwilling cheeks and the poking, patting and cuddling guaranteed to make children squirm.

But unfortunately for Joe, of this gruesome gaggle of grannies, his is the absolute worst. He knows only too well the boiling disappointment of a present willfully bought to be too young for him, and the horrors of a supper piled high with cottage cheese and slimy raw herring, which his (to everyone else, apparently sweet-natured) granny has made specially for him. Inflicting her own peculiar brand of tortures and disposing of his only allies, Granny seems to hold all the cards in more ways than one. It’s bad enough being trapped with her over the summer holidays when his parents are on holiday in France. But when Granny announces that they are going away together ‘on a little trip’ to a hotel in Bideford, where Joe discovers that all the residents and staff are over seventy-years-old, his problems really begin. Never has the prospect of sea air and ice creams cast such a frightening shadow.

Why is everybody so old?

Why are so many of the elderly guests carrying strange pieces of scientific equipment with them on arrival?

And what, exactly, are the mysterious Golden Granny Awards?

Horowitz makes no secret that the book was inspired by his own wretched grandmother – a woman, he tells us, devoid of the ability to do anything kind for anyone and this clearly underpins his venomous descriptions of the antagonist. And they are harsh:

There were no labels on her perfume bottles but this one might have been called “Decomposing Sheep”.


Granny wore a lot of make-up. Sometimes she put it on so thickly that you could have drawn a picture in it with your thumb-nail.

But worst of all was her skin. As well as kissing her grandson, Granny insisted on his kissing her and her skin was as withery as a punctured balloon. No words could describe the feel of her skin against his lips, actually flapping slightly between the upper and the lower lip at the moment of kissing.

However, taken in the context of this surreal, larger-than-life tale, they make Granny the ultimate antagonist.

Horowitz says that the idea for the book came to him whilst he was attending his grandmother’s funeral, and adds in his introduction, that whilst she never made anyone smile in life, she has certainly made children laugh in this book. Whether this was motivated by revenge or a desire to bring something good out of something so dreadful the end result is the same – a giggle-filled book with a truly wicked villain at its heart.

‘Granny’ brims with ridiculousness reminiscent of Dahl, and shares that author’s favourite themes of children standing up to the outrageously vile adults that bully them, as in ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and ‘The Witches’. Joe is very much on his own, young and vulnerable, and the reader immediately sympathises with him as he endures Granny’s dreadful machinations. As the peril rises for Joe, the story’s humour comes in many flavours.

Sometimes it’s surreal:

Mrs Warden was in a hurry. She threw a spoonful of coffee granules into her mouth and sipped some boiling water from the kettle. 

Sometimes it’s in bright word play. Joe’s parents’ house is called Thattlebee Hall whilst the seaside hotel to which he is unwillingly taken by Granny is The Stilton International.

And at other times it takes the form of corny jokes that would make even Basil Brush groan:

Mr Warden was at work. And Mrs Warden – who was now having lessons in Chinese cookery – was at wok.

The Daily Telegraph calls the book ‘wickedly funny’ and to me this highlights the sort of humour that I feel works best of all: where the laughs are mixed with horror.

For example, after the police dogs have attacked the unfortunate Mrs Jinks:

He saw Sherlock and Bones being led back to the police van, their heads hanging in disgrace, and saw, with a wave of despair, that they looked a lot fatter than they had been when they arrived.

Horowitz’s pitting a boy against wicked adults will appeal strongly to a child’s sense of justice: that villains meet with miserable ends. However, I would offer one word of caution. There is a strong sinister undercurrent throughout this book and despite the apparent victory over Granny, there is no happy ever after for Joe. Menace remains to the last page. Bad things happen to good people and I would not recommend this book for younger or more anxious children.

However, that aside, I have no doubt that many children will delight in the comic anarchy of this book, brilliantly illustrated by Tony Ross, and feel sure that its timely reissue will delight the many fans of Dahl and Walliams. 

Reviewer: Julia Wills

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