Here’s a thing you might not know about me: I have a weird starting-to-read-a-book ritual. I start with the cover material: I read the back cover, with the summary and reviews and such; and I read the jacket liner material, with the summary in the front part and the author bio in the back. Then I read the copyright page (ok, I mostly scan it, but sometimes there are interesting tidbits there), and the dedication page (if it’s a brief dedication at the front–I have no time for those rambling “thank you” bits at the ends of books), and all the chapter titles if there are any. I don’t read any introductions, prefaces, Reading Club Guides, or any of that nonsense–I’m here for the book, not for your academic discussion of the book. And then–and here’s what makes Moon Man cringe–I read the last few paragraphs of the book itself. I know, I know, that’s weird; but I’m less concerned with how the story ends than with how we get to our destination. I don’t like the idea of getting on a plane and having no idea where we’re headed, and it’s the same thing with a book–I’d like to know where we’re going so I can enjoy the ride.
Now, here’s why I’m telling you that: I picked up Matt Haig’s The Humans a while back on recommendation from a friend, and loveloveloved it–it was funny and touching and insightful and oh-so-very quotable–and when I finished it, I added several more of Haig’s books to my To Read list, and the next time I went to buy books, I found a nice used copy of The Dead Fathers Club and picked it up…
…and then it sat on my shelf for a while, because other books had gotten prioritized ahead of it. But I made it to this one a couple of days ago, and it…well, you know how I read the reviews and things on the back cover? Yeah, I’m not entirely sure I should do that anymore.
In my defense, my copy of Dead Fathers Club doesn’t make it particularly clear what we’re getting into. There’s an oblique reference to it being somehow Shakespearean on the back, but there are several uses of the words “fun” or “funny”, and the mention of “dark comedy” is balanced out by the phrase “delightfully weird”. So I figured, ok, this might be pitch-black humor, but it should be a delightful romp through something at least tangentially Shakespearean, and I can get behind that. So I cracked it open, and settled in to read.
Do you know what this book actually is? It’s a retelling of Hamlet. Through the eyes of an 11-year-old who is haunted by his father’s ghost, and Dear Ol’ Dead Dad is constantly horrifying the child with talk of how if our protagonist doesn’t avenge Dad’s death by personally murdering the man who killed Dad, then Dad will have to spend the rest of eternity in “the Terrors”. Since our protagonist (his name is Philip) is the only person who can see Dad’s ghost, he spends a lot of time appearing to talk to himself; and since he’s kind of an outsider anyway, he is relentlessly bullied by other kids at his school. And since this is Hamlet Revisited, his mother starts sleeping with Dad’s killer, and we get some hints that Killer has abusive tendencies.
So to recap: 11-year-old is bullied by classmates and haunted by his father’s ghost who urges him constantly to commit murder. Philip is tormented–yep, full-on tormented, which isn’t a word I use all that often–and going slightly crazy, and is having all sorts of deeply alarming breakdowns and is at risk of being abused and spends his days in a mixture of fear and despair.
HA! HA HA HA! Ohh, the humor!
Now, to be fair, there are some humorous moments. Some individual lines that made me grin wryly, and a couple of scenes that were pretty funny, at least comparatively. But in general?
In general this is Hamlet, folks. You remember Hamlet. The one with the murdering and the insanity and the suicide and the poison and the play-within-a-play and really rather impressive body count. Shakespeare’s plays are usually divided into his Comedies, his Histories, and his Tragedies, and this one falls squarely in that latter category. It is not, as they say, the feel-good Shakespearean play of the century.
So likewise neither is Dead Fathers Club the feel-good novel of the decade. It’s good–I mean, it’s compelling and very readable (fair warning: it’s got a quirky style, meant to emulate the writing of an 11-year-old, so there are periodic misspellings or misunderstood words, and there’s a notable lack of punctuation other than periods and commas–there’s nary a quotation mark to be found, and nearly no apostrophes). But it’s not…well, it’s not entirely what I was expecting going in. At least, not based on the minimal information and the reviews provided on the cover. Good? Yes. Jolly good fun? Wellllll…I mean, c’mon, it’s a tragedy. You do the math.
TL;DR: A retelling of Hamlet, Dead Fathers Club has some darkly humorous moments but is otherwise exactly what you expect it to be: a story of murder, revenge, madness, alienation, and fear–but this time with an 11-year-old boy at center stage.
Rating: 8/10 muddy hoofprints. It was actually quite good, and I could see it being taught (and challenged, and probably banned) in some classrooms as a modern revisit of the classic play. You know how teachers love to do that. So if you’re looking for that sort of book, this is an excellent option; just don’t be fooled by the reviewers who try to convince you that it’s hilarious, ’cause lord lord, it is many things but “hilarious” ain’t one of ’em.