The Dead Fathers Club, Matt Haig
So, the premise is weird – the events of Hamlet happen, in a fashion, to and around a British boy (one Philip Noble) circa the late 1990s. And the book, in my opinion, markets itself very badly, claiming to be “funny” a few times on the back cover. Nope. Not funny.
At some point, for this book to be funny, it would have to be heartless, and a lot of its charm comes from the sympathy the author clearly has for Philip. He is, after all, in a terrible situation: though he’s a good decade younger than Hamlet was, he faces the same set of problems. His father Brian dies, and far too soon afterward, his Uncle Alan starts moving in on Philip’s mother. (His parents, by the way, own a pub called Castle and Falcon, and Brian wears a T-shirt that says “King of the Castle”. Cute, huh?) 11-year-old Philip even has his own Ophelia, a girl from school named Leah.
Soon after his father’s death Philip begins seeing “Dads Ghost” on a regular basis. The ghost tells him that he is now a member of the Dead Fathers Club and is experiencing “The Terrors”, and will be stuck there forever unless Philip gets revenge. Throughout the novel, Dads Ghost instructs Philip on how to go about doing this.
It becomes quickly and painfully clear that most of what’s going on is in Philip’s head. He’s distraught over the loss of his father, so it’s no surprise that he would find a way to act out. The problem, though, is that unlike Hamlet, Philip is still a little boy, and so the horrific consequences of his misunderstanding seem that much worse. This is mitigated somewhat by the very active role of Dads Ghost, but it’s still hard to read about these events happening to a kid. (Not all of the events of Haig’s novel line up with those in Hamlet, by the way, so I haven’t given away the entire book.)
With that said, this is still a very clever update of our beloved Shakespeare’s best play, and Philip’s voice is convincing and engaging. On another level, it works as a strangely moving portrait of a kid who has experienced a really devastating loss and has to find a way to accept that loss and move on, even if he goes about doing that in pretty much the worst way possible.
In short: Weird and charming and sad, The Dead Father’s Club is worth the read, provided you can stomach seeing a little kid playing out Hamlet’s story.
Read it if you like: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, overly precocious pre-adolescent protagonists, modern updates of Shakespeare