Philip Noble's father died in a car accident recently. Philip is 11 years old, and lives in Newark, in the UK. He likes reading about the Romans and he keeps guppy fish in his bedroom. His parents ran a pub, and now that his father is dead, his mother is having a hard time coping on her own. One evening, in the pub, Philip sees the ghost of his father. His father comes to him often, and bit by bit, explains that he was murdered by his brother Alan, who wants to take over the pub and marry his wife. Philip has to get revenge by killing Alan.
The basic structure of the plot is based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, and this may add to the pleasure of reading the book, although no knowledge of Shakespeare is necessary to enjoy the story. Haig has Philip narrate the story, and on the unabridged audiobook, Philip's part is read by 12-year-old Andrew Dennis, which makes his youth even more striking. The production is excellent: Dennis reads well, with plenty of energy, and rises to the occasion when he has to sing, although his different accents are occasionally a little shaky.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the book is Philip's use of language. Sometimes he uses words in unexpected ways. For example, here is how he describes his uncle. "Uncle Alan who is Dads brother was there wearing his suit that was tight with his neck pouring over like the beer over the glass." In the printed version, Philip does not use any apostrophes or quotation marks, which is presumably meant to help heighten the sense that it is Philip speaking, but is mainly just annoying. For most of the novel, Philip's voice is convincing, and this makes the book more effective.
Philip is a convincing character because he describes details that adults would not normally notice, and his experience as a child is distinctively different from that of adults. He gets bullied by other children at school because he has lost his father and he is acting strange, such as sleepwalking and speaking to ghosts. His suspicion of his uncle Alan is natural, and he is angry to see his mother starting to get close to Alan, but he has no power to stop them from getting together. So it is easy to sympathize with his frustration.
A central question of the book is whether Philip's visions are real or not. From start to finish, it is not clear what to think. Sometimes it seems as if there must really be a ghost, and at others, it seems as if he must simply be imagining things. Even if the ghost is real though, Philip still has to decide whether to kill his uncle Alan, and he finds the idea difficult, so he struggles with it. He wants to help his father, but he also realizes that his father is not always right.
The Dead Fathers Club is a funny and thought provoking novel for adults and teens; its themes of childhood grief and the supernatural make it distinctive and memorable.
Link: Matt Haig Website
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.