It’s now almost a week since Prince Harry’s memoir Spare was published and what thrillingly hectic days they’ve been: hard to pick a highlight. Amusing as it was to find Nicholas Witchell reporting for the BBC on the book’s release by filming the sole person queueing outside Waterstones’ London flagship to buy it, I think the sound of the ex-Sun hack Dan Wootton railing flatulently in the Daily Mail at Harry’s description of him as a “sad little man” just edged it for me (“no, YOU’RE the sad little man, Mister Prince!”). Meanwhile, in the US, Harry went on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where he performed a skit with some trumpets and Tom Hanks and spoke of his “frost-nipped todger” – said todger being, by the way, just one of dozens of be-nicknamed rude mechanicals who appear in his masterwork (others include his mates Badger, Skippy and Chimp; the venomous royal courtiers known as the Bee, the Wasp and the Fly; and Rehabber Kooks, AKA Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News UK).
It has to be said, however, that none of this coverage, barmy and excessively fixated, is even half so unlikely as Spare itself, a book that must rank as one of the most bizarre I’ve ever read. Yes, it is – at moments – very sad. There’s ongoing shame in it for tabloid journalism. But for a title written explicitly in the cause of securing sympathy and understanding for its so-called author, boy, does it misfire. It’s not only that Harry is so petulant: a man who thinks nothing, even now, of complaining about the bedroom he was allotted for his summer hols in Granny’s castle. With every page, his California makeover grows less convincing.
Where, for instance, did he leave his newfound feminism when he came to describe Pat, a matron at his prep school who was slightly disabled? (“Pat wasn’t hot,” he says. “Pat was cold.”) Does he really expect us to believe that, into his 20s, he didn’t know the word “Paki” was offensive? Since a certain fateful day when he and Meghan had a row while roasting a chicken and she threatened to dump him, he has had, he tells us, an awful lot of therapy and yet it seems to have done him no more good than the Elizabeth Arden cream he once applied to his tingling thing post-north pole. What kind of person insists on an air-clearing meeting with their father on the day of his father’s funeral? A myopic, self-obsessed, non-empathic kind of person, I would say. Exactly the same kind of person, in fact, who would talk about reconciliation in the same breath as they publicly slag off their family.
Such things are made all the more jarring by the yawning gap between the way Harry speaks and the way his ghost, JR Moehringer, writes. In the revelation stakes, Moehringer has done his job; when Harry thanks him in his acknowledgments for having spoken with “such deep conviction about the beauty (and sacred obligation) of Memoir”, you can only wonder what manner of mesmerism he deployed (“Look into my eyes, Harry, and tell me how many Taliban you killed…”). But in the prose stakes, Moehringer just can’t help himself.
I suppose he wishes he were Ben Lerner, or some other hip young literary American gunslinger, rather than having to channel a raging Sloane who must look up the word compere in a dictionary when his brother asks him to be one at his wedding and whose epigraph from Faulkner – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” – he found on brainyquote.com. Sometimes, Moehringer writes. Like this. In short sentences. Bang. Bang-bang. At other times, it’s as if he’s been at Harry’s weed or something. At one point, the prince talks about tuck at school, specifically his love of Starburst, formerly known as Opal Fruits. “I devised a way of super-sizing my sugar rush,” the passage reads. “I’d take all my Opal Fruits and squeeze them together into one massive gobstopper… As the wad melted, my bloodstream would become a frothy cataract of dextrose. Whatsoever thy hand findest to do, do it with thy might.” And lo, Billy Bunter morphs into Renton out of Trainspotting.
Harry’s meaner critics like to point out that plenty of people lose someone as a child; his self-proclaimed exceptionalism annoys them. This is, of course, disingenuous as well as harsh. No other boy ever had to walk behind his mother’s coffin in full sight of millions, nor have many been trailed by those they believe killed their parent into grief-struck adulthood. In his book, however, Harry’s special pleading extends far beyond all this. Is it a manifestation of his extreme privilege that he seems not to realise that most British people struggle with the expression of feelings; that the desire to run a mile at the thought of “talking it out” isn’t limited to those with titles?
Love need not always be showy, whatever he thinks now he lives in the land of Meghan and her gruesome love poems (the one he quotes is unbearable: pure vomit emoji). His description of his father’s failure to hug him after he has told him his mother is dead is piercing – a scene out of a historical novel – but thereafter, Charles sounds so quietly doting: leaving encouraging notes on his pillow, tickling his face until he falls asleep (his “darling boy” was afraid of the dark). Gratitude is not something with which Harry seems to be much acquainted and perhaps this is why his Aunt Margaret once gave him a Biro for Christmas and his stepmother, Camilla, once suggested a little job in Bermuda might be nice.
Does he at last spell out his reasons for leaving Britain? Not really. There are loads of vague accusations. “You know why [I left]!” he yelps at William, in the royal burial ground at Frogmore, their feet almost “on top of Wallis’s grave”. But nothing concrete emerges, unless you think a misreported row over a bridesmaid’s dress is a reason to “flee” a country. Was it down to Meghan, then? Who knows. All I can tell you is that this manchild who once wanted nothing more than to work in an alpine fondue hut is patently obsessed with his wife. (Long story, but he literally peed his pants in the hours before their first date.)
How impressive she is, talking of women’s rights and something called Eat, Pray, Love! Packing only jeans, shorts and a yoga mat for Botswana! He will give her anything, even a California house with a pond full of koi, though to do so he would prefer not to have to spend even “some” of his inheritance from his mother. So here we are. Penguin Random House has helped him out and we can only hope he’s happy with his end of the deal, a pact more Faustian by far than anything his father or brother have ever signed.
• Spare by Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex is published by Bantam (£28). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply