January 31, 2007

BOOKS: The Dead Fathers Club, Matt Haig (2007)

Philip Noble on rugby:
Rugby is weird because it lets people hurt you and jump on you on the field and if they did it 30 minutes before at break theyd get told off but in Rugby you are meant to do it.

Its like how in War soldiers are told to kill other men and then they are Heroes but if they killed the same men when they were not in War they are Murderers. But they are still killing the same men who have the same dreams and who chew the same food and hum the same songs when they are happy but if it is called War it is all right because that is the rules of War.

So it is not the thing that is bad or good it is what the thing is called like in Roman times when the Emperors let people watch the Games in the Colosseum where Slaves killed each other and people cheered.

This is, to be sure, less concise than Shakespeare's version -- "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" -- but then, Philip is only 11. At least Hamlet had the benefit of a little more education when his father's ghost began appearing to him.

Haig's contemporary re-imagining of Hamlet begins much as the original does; Philip's father appears to him (at his own wake), declares that his death was no accident, and orders Philip to avenge his death by killing Uncle Alan, who is (according to the ghost) out to marry Mum and take over the Castle and Falcon, the family pub.

At first, The Dead Fathers Club is a light amusement, and we're kept entertained by spotting the parallels. Philip's first girlfriend, Leah, and her father (who is, naturally, Uncle Alan's business partner) fill in for Ophelia and Polonius; there's Ross and Gary, Philip's identical twin classmates, who no one can tell apart; there are sly references to Shakespeare's dialogue.

But as the novel progresses, and Philip becomes more determined to carry out his father's wishes, the story deepens and darkens. As characters begin to meet their various tragic endings -- c'mon, it's Hamlet; you knew there'd be tragic endings -- Haig achieves moments of heartbreak and poignancy without ever letting the narrative become too heavy or ponderous.

The writing is very smart. The omission of commas and apostrophes is occasionally a bit distracting, but it's an effective reminder that we're not hearing the voice of an adult. And Haig does a terrific job of maintaining the central ambiguity -- is Dads Ghost real, or has Philip been driven mad by grief? -- for as long as possible.

You don't expect to be charmed by black comedy, but that's what Haig has pulled off here; it's first-rate work, and a marvelous entertainment.

No comments: