Reckless vulnerability: ‘Spare,’ by Prince Harry book review

First things first. In my book review of ‘Spare’, by Prince Harry, I’m only focusing on the book. I’m not interested in passing judgement on any person mentioned in the book. I’m not interested in finding victims or guilty parties. I don’t know the people mentioned in the book and, having worked in media in the past, I know reporting is not always what it seems, so I can’t determine culpability based on whatever I may have read online. I have neither animosity nor preference for any person in this story, and I hope you’ll keep this in mind when reading my review.

book review
Random House

“…it really all begins with a struggle for freedom.”

Those are some of the thoughts Prince Harry, now living in America and with the ties with his family all but severed, has during the birth of his daughter. And with that line, we could summarise the story he tells. A struggle for freedom — freedom from pain, freedom from paparazzi, freedom from the million names he’s been called throughout the decades, freedom from an institution that he feels will happily throw him under the bus to ensure its own survival.

The book begins with a meeting with his father and older brother after his grandfather’s funeral. After yet another gathering in which a discussion quickly turns into an argument, he realises they don’t understand why he wants to leave. And so, the book is an attempt to explain them — and the world — the sequence of events that led him across the ocean, away from everything he knew.

Beautiful oversharing

The first part starts with Diana’s death and covers his time at school, his gap year in Australia, his love for Africa, his relationships, his time in the Army, and his life as a working royal before he met his wife, and starting a life with her.

I wish I could comment on the prose, but nothing stood out for me. For a man who has travelled so much and met so many people, and was educated in one of the best schools in the world, you’d think it’d be more insightful. It makes him seen, at times, uninteresting.

Perhaps the most depth we can get is when he talks about his mother’s death, arguably one of the defining moments of his life. Her death lingers well beyond the chapters dedicated to its aftermath and showcases the deep loneliness and need for affection that plagued him throughout his life.

The writing is a dizzying mix of disarmingly vulnerable, heartbreaking, reckless, and juvenile. He reflects on grief, loneliness, and the search for his own identity in the same pages he explains wearing a Nazi uniform as youthful stupidity and uses his frost-bitten penis to exemplify the difficulties of getting confidential medical care in the institution.

Sometimes it’s hard to see how the oversharing fits in the story. You’re left feeling the awkwardness of what’s essentially a stranger sharing intimate details about his life, his family, and his body, with you. I want to think of it as a way to challenge the way we view narrativising other people’s experiences. The press has published plenty of salacious stories about his life, his family, and his body, and yet the public does consume those with glee.

Characterisation and descriptions

I almost want to complain about the characterisation. You see, in fiction, you’d define your characters’ motives. What do they want? What moves them? Your character’s actions are determined by it. But this isn’t easy to do in non-fiction when you’re writing about real people. Real people whose feelings might be hurt by you spilling hot tea all over the place. Real people who could sue you.

And here’s one of the main places the story falls flat for me. I don’t know what any of these people want. Their actions seem contradictory, unmotivated, as if they were dragged by a current beyond their control. Maybe that’s how Harry sees it. Maybe he doesn’t know why his family acted the way they did. But after reading the book, I’m not even sure what motivates Harry, either.

non-fiction book reviews
“Frederick, Prince of Wales,” (c. 1740-1750) Joseph Highmore, Royal Collection.

The British Royal Family has a fascinating (and heartbreaking) tradition of family disputes and adult children trying to run away from overbearing parents and the rigid institution they represented. In 1814, Princess Charlotte fled her residence, Warwick House, where her father — who’d later become King George IV — had ordered her to remain in seclusion after she broke off a marriage contract. And in 1737, Frederick, Prince of Wales fled Hampton Court with his wife, Augusta, when she went into labour to keep his mother from attending the birth.

While Charlotte eventually returned to her residence and her father’s control, Frederick was banished from court and lived as a dedicated family man and cricket fan.

While in his book Harry claims not to know much about his own ancestry, it would serve him to study it more closely. He might not have wanted to lean into his ancestry too much, but it’d have proved an interesting point to touch upon, in line with the idea of history repeating itself.

The descriptions of places are meticulous, sometimes unnecessarily so. He will tell you about wallpaper patterns and the types of flowers in a garden, but by his own admission, his memory for dialogue is less precise. It’s odd to set yourself up as an unreliable narrator in your own memoir, but it is, at least, honest. How many of us can recall conversations from decades ago exactly as they happen? But then, either his ghostwriter — celebrity ghostwriter JR Moehringer, who also wrote retired tennis star Andre Agassi’s autobiography — or his editors could have arranged to fact-check as many claims as possible. Did no one check that Xbox did not exist in 1997 and that perhaps he meant a Playstation or a Nintendo 64 — consoles that did exist at the time?

In the end, ‘Spare’ is the story of a traumatised man surrounded by flawed people trapped in a toxic environment. It’s a book full of contradictions. It portrays a rather ordinary man living an extraordinary life, surrounded by people who love him but also play along with the institutions that hurt him.

If you’re at least curious about his story, I suggest you give it a shot. I read this on audiobook and found Harry’s reading pleasant enough. While not a voice actor, he has good diction and does inject certain passages with a sense of honesty and vulnerability.

The experience of reading this book was in part enjoyable, and in part second-hand embarrassment. I suppose opening up is risky. It exposes you to ridicule and judgement. While it’s unlikely we’ll ever hear the points of view of the other participants in this story, it is refreshing to see a man so stifled by a rigid environment try, perhaps a bit too recklessly, to break free.

This my book review #1 in 2023. I’ll be posting reviews of all the books I read this year. While I don’t often read memoirs, I thought it was a nice change from the usual content in this blog. I hope it helped!

Have you read any interesting books this year? Feel free to share in the comments below!

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