The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering

Publisher: Walker Books
Pages: 270 (Paperback)
Format: Illustrated Novel


Here, reader, is the tale of a tiny sickly mouse with unusually large ears; a mouse who takes his fate into his own hands.

It is the tale of a beautiful, flaxen-haired princess, who laughs often and makes everything around her seem brighter.

It is the tale of a poor deaf serving girl, who entertains foolish dreams of splendour.

It is a tale of impossible love, of bravery and old fashioned courage.

And, reader, it is a tale of treachery; unlimited treachery.

It is the Tale of Despereaux…

I picked this book up firstly because it was on one of my book-group’s reading challenge for this month but also because of some rather distressing family events that made me want to take a break from ‘serious reading’ and indulge in something a bit more easy and light-going. Unfortunately that’s about all I can say for this book. It’s not bad and I don’t dislike it but neither can I in all honesty state that I enjoyed it. The problem, for me, was one of tone. It could have been a charming little two-dimensional little fairytale but it tried so damn hard to be three-dimensional that what charm there was evaporated and left it an awkward misshapen little story that was neither simplistic enough to be charming thing nor developed enough to be interesting.

Putting aside the odd bits of quirky humour that didn’t gel with the style of the rest of the book (such as the king banning soup and outlawing rats) the main problem was the characters. Each of the main players – Despereaux, Chiaroscuro the rat, and Miggery Sow the servant – are introduced in a multi-chapter ‘book’ that outlines their past and how they got to the place they are now in the main storyline. It’s an interesting method and one I quite liked initially but ultimately, once the final ‘present-day’ storyline concluded, it just ended up annoying me. The main storyline was such a straightforward little fairytale and the characters in it played such absolutely stock parts that all the build up felt completely unnecessary and actually almost smug. Instead of subverting fairytale tropes it fulfilled them to the letter all the while shaking its head and going ‘no no no, these are three-dimensional characters, see, they have backstories and everything!’

Did we need to know about Chiaroscuro’s past if all he was going to do was fulfil the ‘all rats are evil’ cliché? Did it matter that Miggery Sow had a sympathetic backstory if in the main storyline she’s portrayed as fat, ugly, deaf, and jealous and has to be saved from her own stupidity by the beautiful princess? Despite the time taken on them they still felt two-dimensional and the backstories didn’t make them more interesting characters, it just gave the author more pages in which to moralise and pontificate – which she did, at great length. Everything is so easily solved with a one sentence pronouncement by the princess that basically amounts to ‘lets all be friends’ that it made the 264 page build up seem like a waste of time and effort. And Despereaux…oh Despereaux…what did the sickly mouse with the big ears actually do? Not very much.

As I said to begin with though; it’s not bad. There is plenty there to like, even if it didn’t work for me, and I can see the right sort of child absolutely loving it.  The greyscale illustrations are pretty nice too (so long as they’re of rats and mice rather than people anyway). But…as an adult, I think the dreaded words ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed’ sum up my feelings best.


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