Grief, the Royal Mantle, and an Appraisal of the Empire Book Review: Spare by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex

Spare by Prince Harry ultimately makes obvious that Harry doesn’t want to change the status quo, but wants to be in the highest echelons of it, demanding racial equality at the top of a racist empire.

Spare, the new, widely discussed memoir by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, is the Prince’s attempt at telling his story in his own words (or more accurately, the words of ghost writer, J. R. Moehringer). Given who Harry is, the commercial success of the memoir was completely inevitable. Revelatory excerpts (quick takeaways) from the book such as Harry’s battles with anxiety and panic attacks, Harry’s body count while serving in Afghanistan and deplorable actions of members of the British royal family have been circulating online for the last few weeks simultaneously giving the book a certain gravitas and the whiff of ‘scandal’. All of the promotion (Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex released a six-part Netflix documentary before the book’s release) and coverage of the memoir seems to be almost besides the point for what essentially is a memoir about the contours of unresolved grief—how it warps your mind and memories, shapes your past and your future.   

The memoir is bookended by the death of Harry’s grandfather, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, and the birth of Harry’s second child, Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor. The memoir follows a tidy path in this way as Harry takes the reader through his somewhat turbulent time at Ludgrove School and Eton College (‘Heaven for brilliant boys’)—furtive weed smoking, post-lights-out violations, academic struggles etc. There’s a horrifying bit meant to highlight Harry’s youthful mischievousness where the reader is regaled with a tale of Harry taunting a disabled matron at Ludgrove—to his gap year at a farm owned by his mother, Princess Diana’s friends in Australia and then Lesotho before his stint at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. The through line in these various points in Harry’s life, and where this book mostly succeeds as an autobiography, is the insidious ways avoiding the grief of his mother, Diana’s death moulded his personhood without really giving him much of a choice.

Harry and by extension his brother, Prince William, are tethered to bureaucracy and responsibility to the monarchy from birth and so they’re forced to endure things children shouldn’t when their parent dies: maintaining a facade of stoicism and politeness while also having to console and mollify a crowd of wailing adults, most of whom had parasocial relationships with their mother. Public stoicism in the throes of difficulty is the ‘ethos’ of the British royal family and it’s a shame how well Harry understands that burden at the tender age of 12. As it turns out the damaging qualities society extols in boys and men are a perfect fit for public royal life. 

Also striking is Harry’s determination to position himself as an unreliable narrator: ‘Whatever is the cause, my memory is my memory, it does what it does, gathers and curates as it sees fit…’ His truth—what he remembers and how he remembers it—is his singular focus. The cause of the slippery nature of his childhood memories is beside the point. Harry does not recall details like conversations (unless you count the painfully awkward moment his father breaks the news of his mother’s death to him like he’s a doctor trying to deliver bad news to a patient: ‘They tried, darling boy. I’m afraid she didn’t make it’, very matter-of-factly with measured detachment and little care). Nor does he recall dates of events and suchlike but he never forgets the intricacies of a physical setting—architecture, landscape.  

At the point of Diana’s death and years after, Harry believes she isn’t really dead and her ‘death’ is just an elaborate ruse she devised to live an idyllic life in Paris away from the harassment and torment of the British press. It’s easier to feed your delusions than come to terms with the fact someone you love is gone forever. If you don’t have to grieve, you don’t have to feel. ‘My memory had been spotty since Mummy disappeared, by design, and I didn’t want to fix it, because memory equals grief,’ Harry states.  

And so, Harry continues to operate on this axis of emotional avoidance by constantly putting himself in physical danger in order to feel something: rugby, drugs, brawls, war. While serving as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) in Afghanistan, Harry pleads with his commanding officer to be moved to the deadlier war zone, Garmsir; while learning to tactically fly helicopters, a no-nonsense flight instructor named Nige says to him, ‘You’re not terribly concerned, if I may say, Lieutenant Wales, with dying.’ 

Equally frightening is the cavalier manner Harry discloses his body count during his service in Afghanistan, comparing the 25 ‘enemy combatants’ he killed (who apparently may not have been Taliban members but innocent civilians) to ‘chess pieces removed from the board’; ‘bads’ killed before they could harm ‘goods’, invoking the atrocity of 9/11 as justification for his actions. Murder for the greater good. Harry understands that dehumanizing people he has been trained to see as the enemy is a necessary step in killing them and alleviating any guilt about it. Unfortunately, he also thinks he deserves a cookie for acknowledging the depravity of this cycle of detachment when it comes to taking human lives.  

Anyone picking up this book with the hopes of being privy to juicy details about Harry and the British royal family isn’t going to be disappointed. Harry has the unique advantage of being one of the few members of his family to write a memoir and who has a wealth of experiences and insights to draw from—venturing to the North and South pole, years in the British army, founding the Invictus Games (an international sporting event for wounded/traumatized servicemen and women). Additionally, Harry also recounts his experiences with the nauseating British paparazzi and tabloid culture and how they continually contributed to the destruction of his personal (both familial and romantic) relationships; girlfriends leave because they cannot fathom a life of stalking and harassment; his father, Charles, using the British press as a tool to bolster his reputation by approving damaging lies about Harry and William. It’s interesting to observe how the media and the British royal family work hand-in-hand to maintain the status quo.  

Less noteworthy are the sections Harry wastes explaining the intricacies of how an Apache helicopter operates, military terms (did you know  TIC means Troops In Contact?!), or his justification for joining the army in the first place. Also predictable, is the time Harry spends reframing some of his public failings and scandals, sometimes to the books’ detriment: For instance, the moment Harry chooses to don a sand-coloured Nazi uniform for a party in 2005, at the age of 20 when he should have known better. The press tears him apart to an inch of his life and rightfully so. Harry throws William and his wife, Kate, under the bus by confessing that they encouraged him to wear the outfit, which is one of the ways he exposes how reprehensible they both are in this book.  

Harry’s father attributes his decision to wear the Nazi uniform to ‘foolishness of youth’ and then sends him on a PR mission to the Chief Rabbi of Britain for public atonement. Harry’s self-flagellation in the telling of this story is almost as irritating as his determination to convince the reader that he’s a good person who just made the silly mistake of wearing a Nazi soldier outfit. ‘I am not my mistakes!’ he almost seems to be yelling through the pages, more interested in eliciting pity from the reader and performing half-baked shame than showing real sense of contrition or understanding of the harm of the stunt. 

I’m glad to admit parts of this book made me clutch my sides in laughter, mostly because it feels great when an ‘exposé’ of this magnitude, which is deemed by all to be taken very seriously, can poke fun at itself. Harry’s sense of mischief is very palpable when, in the book’s prologue, he describes William as having an ‘alarming baldness’ more advanced than his and William’s fading resemblance to their mother, Diana. In a segment that inadvertently underscores Harry’s limited racial astuteness, he flippantly admits he’d prefer to be known as naughty and racist than to have a reputation for laziness: ‘The press had called me stupid for most of my life, and naughty, and racist, but if they dared to call me lazy…I couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t go down to Fleet Street and start pulling people out from behind their desks.’  

Other sections of the book are unintentionally hilarious; see the extremely cringe moment Harry, while in Botswana, feels a sense of pride about himself when a filmmaker from Cape Town named Teej tells him, ‘I think your body was born in Britain but your soul was born here in Africa.’ I wouldn’t have been surprised if Harry returned to Britain from ‘Africa’ in cornrow braids and a tattoo that said ‘Made in the Motherland’.  

This book probably would not exist if Harry and Meghan hadn’t taken a ‘step back’ from their royal duties in 2020 and effectively relinquished all the support that comes with their position, giving the revelatory nature of the book a burning-it-all-to-the-ground sheen. The British monarchy’s links to slavery, dating back to the sixteenth century, are well documented and the British royal family isn’t exactly a symbol of social and class equality, to put it lightly. In a world quickly embracing radical social change, it’s understandable and admirable that many readers of this memoir would hold fast to the idea, a pipe dream, that Harry is willing to topple the monarchy from within or that his selective candour somehow has the capacity to weaken it—it doesn’t. The book coasts on this expectation, of course, because Harry isn’t really interested in radical change. He simply wants to tell his version of the truth without any adverse effects on the monarchy or his family (well, except William).  

Change, material change, and not just the tame, symbolic, representation-centric kind Harry seems to tout as important (there’s a passage in the book in which Harry lays out his frustration with the British royal family and doubts the ‘fairness’ of the monarchy not because of its colonial history or the class divisions it fosters, but because of its failure to welcome it’s ‘first biracial member’, Megan) would require his family, ergo him, to shed their power. Despite Harry’s explicit acknowledgement of Britain’s past of slavery, annexation, colonialism, and imperialism, he still clings to idea of the monarchy as something noble and pristine and only questions this idea when his family remains radio silent in the throes of Megan being harassed and attacked in the press. He’d return to Britain and his gilded cage under the monarchy in a heartbeat if his father, now King Charles, displayed any inkling of support for him and Megan. Harry doesn’t want to change the status quo, he wants to be in the highest echelons of it, demanding racial equality at the top of a racist empire

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex
416 pp. Penguin Random House, January 2023

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