Literary influence is neatly reconfigured in the English author’s second novel (after The Last Family in England, 2005), in which an 11-year-old schoolboy is commanded to seek revenge by the ghost of his murdered father.
“Dad’s ghost” appears to Philip Noble, not on the battlements at Elsinore, but at the family-operated Castle and Falcon Pub, where mourners gather following his funeral. The spirit explains that his apparently accidental death in a car crash was in fact engineered by Philip’s paternal Uncle Alan, an auto-dealer who has designs on Philip’s now conveniently widowed Mum. Dad’s ghost also explains the unhappy fellowship of the title group, whose members hover, unavenged and restless, between the dead and the living—while spurring the reluctant Philip to action, evoking from the boy reactions that astound his family, teachers and schoolmates, and even the forthright older girl (Leah), who matter-of-factly declares him her boyfriend. An act of violence (though not the one intended) ensues, and the embattled Philip—whose unpunctuated, edgy narration is an utter delight—even does some hasty growing up. Haig rather overworks the pattern of carefully spaced allusions to Hamlet (e.g., mischief-making tins Ross and Gary; pronouncing the wonderfully slimy Uncle Alan a “smiling damned villain”). But there are nice characterizations of Philip’s Mum (so needing to be loved that she’s blind to her brother-in-law’s stratagems) and his sympathetic teacher Mrs. Fell, whose practiced niceness does not cloud her keen understanding of boyish bravado and secrecy. The author also makes effective use of the image of Hadrian’s Wall (which occasions a class trip and essay subject) and to its reputation as a barrier between civilization and savagery. As such, it also embodies Philip’s quite credible vacillations between obedience and moral choice.
We now owe another debt to Shakespeare, and one to Haig, for re-imagining a tragic masterpiece with such wit, force and—yes—originality.