I’ve never been much of a believer, although I’ve backed off on my staunch identification as an atheist – realizing eventually that that group’s smug certainty that there is no God is every bit as obnoxious as the holy rollers who proselytize and damn others to hell. I suppose that technically makes me an agnostic, but I think the most accurate description of my religious belief is “I don’t care.” I try to lead a good life, be kind to others, do more good than harm, etc., etc., and hope that, should there be an afterlife, that’ll be enough to stand me in good stead with the management.
The most fervently I’ve wanted to believe in an afterlife, though, came in 2011 after my mom died. Unlike her heathen son, my mom was a devout churchgoer – she and my dad were (and are, in my dad’s case) active in their local Episcopal church, and I knew that her religious faith is something that got her through those last difficult weeks. I wanted there to be an afterlife because I knew she believed in it, but also for all the usual selfish reasons following the death of a loved one; chiefly, that I’d get to see her again one day. I can’t say I’ve clung to that desire with any tenacity, though. Three years on and I’m pretty much back where I started.
There’s no such equivocation in Matt Haig’s The Dead Fathers Club. His second novel takes up the question of the afterlife in the form of a ghost story that, fittingly for a novel preoccupied with limbo or purgatory (I can never remember which is which), straddles the line between adult and Young Adult fiction. It exists in an uneasy middle ground that has – I think – more in common with the former than the latter, and which might be a little too sophisticated and bleak for younger readers despite the presence of a child protagonist.
Its closest comparison is probably something like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book written for adults but which I know is taught in some high schools. Like that book, The Dead Fathers club features a young narrator – 11-year-old Philip – who is precocious and insightful, but who probably lies somewhere on the autism spectrum. His narration is often an unfiltered stream-of-conscious jumble of sights, sounds, and impressions, such as this passage that comes early in the book when his mother receives news of his father’s death:
And then they went into the office and shut the door and I could hear nothing for ages and then I heard Mum. She was howling like a WOLF and the noise hurt my stomach and I closed my eyes to try and hear the policeman and all he was saying was Im sorry and he kept on saying it
and I knew that he hadnt done anything wrong because he was a policeman and policemen only say sorry if something very bad has happened. So I knew right then what the pain in my stomach was. And I saw the policeman leave and the hat was in his hand but not on his chest any more like the Bad News had been in there and set free. And I saw Mum and she saw me but didnt see me properly and she went to the corner of the hall by the radiator and sat down in a ball and cried and shook her head in her hands and said No no no no no and everywhere round us looked the same but bigger and I wanted to go and tell her it was OK but that would have been a lie and so I just sat there and did nothing.
It’s shortly after this that the ghost of Philip’s father comes to him and says that his brother, Alan, murdered him by severing the brakes on his car. Along with this news, a few other things:
1) Not everyone can see ghosts, but if you do, they are the spirits of the murdered.
2) You have to avenge their death before their next birthday.
3) If you fail to do that, the ghost will remain an unsettled spirit forever.
Philip – who has enough trouble just getting through the school day – now has only a months to figure out how to kill his uncle and set his father’s spirit free. It’s convenient, though, that there’s a bit of a Hamlet situation going on, as Alan, who clearly has designs on Philip’s mother, moves into their home and tries to take over as Surrogate Dad.
For a character who engages in as much internal monologuing as Philip, there’s initially very little ambivalence over his mission. There’s no moralizing about whether it’s right to take Alan’s life, but maybe that makes sense. Life is simpler at 11: Philip loved his father, his father’s ghost says Alan must die, and so Alan must die. The problem, though, is that his father’s ghost – who at first appears to be omniscient and gifted with preternatural awareness – makes an increasing number of inaccurate predictions, some of which have disastrous consequences. And this brings Philip to a crossroads: Is his father an tortured spirit or just a spiteful douchebag? And if it’s the latter, is his death still worth avenging?
While I enjoyed Haig’s spin on the revenge tale, I actually found the most appealing part of the book to be Philip’s voice, especially the way he attempts to come to grip with the world around him. There are several gems throughout the book that might not be particularly insightful to adults, but which seem to perfectly capture the child’s evolving understanding of how the world works.
On his teacher trying to involve him with his peers by making him dance at a party: “Mrs Fell was only being nice because she thought I was on my own but sometimes being nice is as bad as being horrible.”
On the paradox of war and murder: “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.”
And this one especially, on, well, the nature of life itself: “I was thinking Mrs Fell was right. There are choices. You can listen to ghosts or you can not listen to ghosts and you can think what you want to think it is up to you because there are only two things that are true 100 out of 100 times and that is that you live and also that you die and every other thing is not true or false it is a mix. It is both. It is none.”
Philip’s voice is so strong and so engaging that it carries the reader through the book, even in those moments when the revenge plot is less interesting. The real surprise is the end, which is, in the immortal words of Spinal Tap, none more black. It ends on a decidedly dark note, one that unambiguously puts Philip at the center of everything bad that ultimately happens. It’s a curious – and curiously harsh – choice, and it’s probably the strongest argument that Haig hasn’t intended this to be a children’s book. Young Adult Lit typically ends optimistically – the young protagonist having overcome whatever challenges he/she faced to emerge victorious on the other side – but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel in the closing pages of The Dead Fathers Club. If there’s a bleak central thesis implied by the conclusion it’s that, on Earth or in the afterlife, there’s no way out for tortured spirits.
Siouxsie & The Banshees – Hyaena (1984)