Book Review: The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig
Take one devoted son, add in a recently deceased father, ghostly visitations, a suspiciously helpful uncle, and a vulnerable mother, and what do you get? In the case of The Dead Fathers Club, the answer is a modern-day Hamlet retelling that is hip, smart, and moving.
11-year-old Philip Noble’s dad was the owner of the Castle and Falcon pub (he wears a “King of the Castle” T-shirt) until his sudden and tragic death in a car accident. Philip’s poor mother is left to deal with the family business and its shaky finances, until garage-owner Uncle Alan (with perpetually black-stained fingers) steps in to save the pub and woo Philip’s mother, much to the poor boy’s chagrin. Making things worse is the appearance of dad’s ghost, who informs Philip that a) he’s been murdered, b) Uncle Alan is the murderer, c) the only way for dad to rest in peace is for his murder to be avenged, and d) Philip is the one who has to make sure it happens. Nothing like a little pressure on an already barely-holding-on kid.
Philip struggles to figure out what to do, but there are no easy answers. His kind-of girlfriend Leah tries to help, as does her brother Dane, but Philip’s plans invariably go awry, ultimately with tragic consequences. Meanwhile, his dad’s ghost begs him for justice, and his mom is desperate for Philip to be normal, move on, and try to be nicer to Uncle Alan, who — as it turns out — will be around quite a bit once they get married.
From the very first pages, in the opening chapter entitled “The First Time I Saw Dad After He Died”, you can just tell that you’re in for quite a ride. The writing is clever without being overly cutesy; the Hamlet references are certainly present, but the story stands on its own as well.
The Dead Fathers Club is written in the first person and told from Philip’s perspective. Philip’s voice is quite distinctive; his narration flows with little or no punctuation*, and he free associates in a way that’s almost poetic. His fears and obsessions seem realistic for an 11-year-old, and the sense of being out of control is conveyed through Philip’s every action and observation.
*Quick note on the punctuation in The Dead Fathers Club: I was quite amused to come across this post (“30 Things To Tell A Grammar Snob”) by Matt Haig, literally on the day I started reading this book. Check out #9 — I assume that this is book he’s referring to.
As a fan of Hamlet, I couldn’t help but be amused by the shout-outs, small and large, to the source material — even little details have meaning, such as Philip’s pet fish being named Gertrude. Likewise, I did a double-take when I got to this passage, once I realized, “oh wait, this is the To Be or Not To Be soliloquy!”:
My heart was doing its funny beating with no stops in it and I thought why am I me why am I not Mum why am I not the ticking clock why am I not a fish why am I not a loaf of bread why am I alive and most people are dead how do I know Im me how do I know Im alive and I thought it must be good to be dead not dead like Dads dead but to be nothing like when you sleep but then I thought it might be a bad sleep with lots of nightmares like the one I had last night when I was trapped in the black box and then my hand started shaking and I was scared why my hand was shaking and I thought I was going to die and I said Mum! Mum! Mum!
The Dead Fathers Club is a quick and engaging read. It’s touching, it’s quirky, and despite telling a well-known story, manages to pack in a few big surprises. The course of this novel does not run exactly as you’d expect, and that’s a good thing. Never predictable, but always a pleasure to read — I recommend The Dead Fathers Club for anyone who enjoys a classic story turned upside-down.
And a further footnote: Matt Haig is the author of the excellent vampires-in-the-suburbs novel The Radleys, and his new novel, The Humans, is due out in July. Can’t wait!