We are going a little off script for today’s episode. I’m not sure either one of us would call “Spare” the Best Book Ever, though I’m sure it has plenty of people who would. But it is definitely the book of the week, and a book that I think will come to be seen as a watershed moment in the history of the royals.
Suswati Basu is a multilingual journalist, mental health books show podcast host, and award-winning activist, and one of my favorite guests of the show. I was eager to get her take on this book that has been in the news basically nonstop for the last week, and talk beyond the headlines. Besides settling the score, there are a lot of really big issues in this book, and I was eager to get her take on them. We also talked about the bigger issue for all of us readers – is it actually any good? Suswati and I discussed how “Spare” affects our understanding of the royals, and, most importantly for all of us as book lovers, if it’s actually any good.
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Host: Julie Strauss
Listen to Suswati talk to me about “The Stranger” by Albert Camus
Discussed in this episode:
Spare by Prince Harry
Suswati’s Review of Spare in National World
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (co-written by J.R. Moehringer)
Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor
The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
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JS Strauss: Hi Suswati. Welcome back to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Suswati Basu: Thank you so much for having me back.
JS: Well, I couldn’t resist talking to you, our favorite British guest. We’re gonna go a little off-script for today’s episode. I’m not sure either one of us would call “Spare” the Best Book Ever, even though I’m sure there are plenty of people who would call it that, but it’s definitely the book of the week.
JS: It’s book that I think is going to be seen as a watershed moment in the history of the Royals. And since you are in London I, I know you can’t speak for everyone in England, but what’s the general reception been like?
SB: Oh gosh. Okay. So the thing is, obviously, the book is sort of the end of multiple different things coming out about specifically Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. You know, we’ve had the interviews. it all started with the Oprah interview, actually. But then since then we’ve had, you know, the Spotify podcast, then we had also the Netflix show. And since then, over the weekend, we also had the multiple interviews with different news channels. With Prince Harry on his book, which came out on Tuesday of this week. So to be fair, there’s been a big buildup for this moment and the general reception has been pretty evenly split for foreign against, unfortunately. Nothing down the middle.
JS: No nuance. What a shock.
SB: Nope, not at all. Not in this country, no.
JS: I wanna start with the review that you wrote for the National World. First of all, you got the interview out really fast. Did you have an advanced copy of the book?
SB: No, no, I just read very quickly, so I just got through it really, really quickly in the morning and just wrote out.
JS: So in, in the very first line of your review, you call this book, “a very public domestic squabble and a serious look at identity and mental health.” UYou had me from that line, because I thought you absolutely nailed the two central points of this book in one pithy statement. This book is 50% score settling and 50% very intense therapy work.
SB: Yeah. I did mention this in the article as well, it’s that it’s very Shakespearean in nature. This kind of dynamic between the family members. Another very important British institution, Shakespeare. It was really interesting how his whole life also played out in the same very same way. And also just the fact that it was a domestic squabble. You know, if this was any other person, this is essentially a domestic situation of, you know, very, very – t’s very common actually. Brothers who aren’t on the same boat, the older brother having certain responsibilities, a younger brother having less responsibilities and not seen in the same way, seen as almost invisible. It’s very similar dynamic to many siblings relationships. You have a father who’s got a lot of responsibility on him, but then has a sort of a weird attitude towards dealing with his sons. And then also, these are kids of a divorced couple. So, you know, this is all the dynamics of a turbulent domestic relationship. And then add the on top of that, you know, the mental health aspect. There’s very much this theme of him trying to find catharsis throughout the book and, you know, his mother being this kind of specter throughout this book, you know, just her almost as form of, I would consider it PTSD, and he does refer to it as PTSD where she’s always this person who’s just such an important part of his life, but he didn’t really have that much of her in his life. So very much these themes came up time and time and again all the way through. Right across all the different kind of scenarios he ended up.
JS: Yeah, the thing about his mom, I’m gonna say the word sad probably a hundred times during our conversation here, and I said it on every single page as I was reading, but I felt that one of the things I felt most profoundly sad about was every time he describes his mom, it’s in terms of she’s pure light, she’s pure happiness. She’s nothing but beautiful, she was nothing but good and that she’ll always be frozen at who she was when she died, when he was a young kid. He didn’t get to have that experience of getting to know his parent as just as flawed and messed up individual as you are. Right. And that’s such a shame. On the one hand, it’s neat that he will always think of his mom as a beautiful young woman, but what a loss to not get to know her and to not go through that phase that most of the rest of us get to go through. That’s such an incredible loss that you didn’t get to know all sides of her nuanced personality because nobody is all light. That doesn’t happen.
SB: No, and it definitely, I think a lot of children who faced that kind of loss and bereavement at such a young age of a parent end up putting that parent on a pedestal, especially if they have had a really positive light sort of positive relationship. With them. And that’s kind of what he’s done with his mother in this situation. He’s only ever seen her in a positive light. And I think it’s even similar even for William as well, where, you know, they were very young when they, they lost their mother. So, they have, just as you say, it’s just frozen in time. But more than anything, it’s that accident. It’s that final moment of her life that’s also frozen in time, as you’ve seen that they keep going back to over and over again of what happened that night. Which is really, really harrowing, because it’s a horrific way to die anyways. But just to also have so much evidence of it in, in the public sphere. Constantly being faced with that, that moment where, yes, your mother died in the, you know, in front of all these paparazzi which was really quite awful when he described it.
JS: I don’t know if this is an appropriate question to ask a British person, so if I’m off base, go ahead and shut me up. But can I ask you what your personal take on the monarchy is?
SB: So personally, I am not a royalist by any means. You know, I do not believe in colonialism. I am very anti royalist. But that’s part, that’s part partially why I feel like I can give a sort of good take on this particular book because I didn’t come into it re reading it as, oh, this is a, a person with huge privilege who’s had so much in his life that he shouldn’t have the right to complain essentially. Because I didn’t read it like that. I read it as someone who’s giving their side of a story. And it was a very human story that I felt like a lot of people could probably relate to. Even though I don’t believe in the kind of institution of the monarchy, I feel that, you know, he has a right to have that platform to speak for himself.
JS: Did this book change your opinion about the monarchy as an institution or about any of the royals individually?
SB: Not really. I think the thing is that we’re aware that it’s a very antiquated system. There are a lot of problems within the system, and what he did was highlight a lot of those aspects, which is, it’s a very inhumane system. It doesn’t see people as individuals within that system. It sees them as building blocks. You are just basically a cog within this system, and each person has a role within the system to keep it functioning. The fact that it’s called “Spare” really refers to the fact that that’s his role within that. So, you know, he talks about being the shadow, the support, and the plan B for if anything happens to the heir, and that is his role, which is obviously very dehumanizing from the start. So I think that’s kind of what it really summed up was the kind of dehumanization. The monarchy is a very sort of antiquated, dehumanized system that personally, I’m not sure really works for this modern day any anymore. But hence his book just kind of almost sort of reiterated a lot of what I had thought before.
JS: I wanna ask you about the overall theme of hunting. Now you know, as you know, I’m American. We’re known worldwide for our love of guns and gun culture, but I’m from California. So to be honest, all of that is absolutely foreign to me and I, in the book, I really fixated on the many times he talked about hunting, and the ways he talked about hunting. It’s very much a part of the royal life. He sees it as beneficial. You know, ‘we are helping the environment, we’re feeding the townspeople.’ Sort of a noble sport. I was reading it going, my God, the blood lust in these people!
JS: It’s horrifying. And then he goes into his time in Afghanistan and a lot has been made about the fact that he names how many Taliban he killed. Once again an absolutely horrifying number. And he almost made the connection, but I thought he fell short. And I’m interested to hear what you thought. I made the leap for me, that I’m part of this blood lust system because as I was reading, I was commenting on Instagram the entire time. At a very tense moment I got on Instagram and I called the press a bunch of flesh-eating maggots. What is that, if not dehumanizing? They’re obviously just as human as I am and as Harry is. But the only way to justify hatred is to dehumanize, is to call names, is to convince yourself that they’re not people trying to earn a living. They’ve been told they have a right to take those pictures. They have a right to write those articles that the royal family owes them this. The leap that I made is that I’m really part of the system that dehumanizes them because I, I’ve read everything over the years.
JS: They’re entertaining to me. I think this whole system’s nonsense and racist, but, you know, I’m just watching them. And I was disappointed that he didn’t see it necessarily in himself or in the system. And I was sad that he didn’t seem to take that extra step. What, did you have any thoughts about those? The connection of sort of bloodlust throughout those three things: The hunting and his military service and the press.
SB: The thing is, that one aspect of it is that for me, I felt like he’d internalized a lot of that blood lust. So, you know, it’s like when you have internalized racism, you start otherizing even people like yourself. And I felt, felt like he’d otherize that kind of aspect of his life as well. Now the thing is, is that also the other aspect is that he talked about being in the military. Military is a very important tradition within sort of British imperialism. And every single royal has served in some shape or form, if not just in a sort of an honorary way. And so otherizing is a very common perception, even within the royal family. He actually mentions this, that he’d been trained to otherize people, which is quite interesting because that’s what all militaries do in order for them to be able to dehumanize other people to kill them.
JS: Sure. They can’t do the job otherwise.
SB: They can’t do the job otherwise. So, you know, I was just like, okay, I see, I see that he’s been kind of broken down to a severe extreme. He’s also internalized a lot of the hunting nature as well. So I was just like, okay, this guy seems very fragile, like mentally, very unstable. Because he seems to have fragmented his personality and identity through that lens where he was just like, I am able to, otherize these people. I’ve grown up in a situation where I have called people all sorts of names. Like I think he used the “P” word to describe an South Asian colleague of his, a cadet. And he later said, I didn’t know that this was a bad word because I hadn’t seen anyone use it in that kind of term before. And that was the third aspect of it, which was the level of a bubble he had lived in. Which was really interesting because it was just like, he only sees one aspect of the the fishbowl, essentially. He sees war, which is a very common aspect of the royal family. He sees the media, which is also a really important institution alongside the monarchy. And then he sees this kind of fishbowl imperialism. So it is just like, he very much kind of exudes a lot of what was taught to him. He’s probably the first generation trying to break that mold. But it doesn’t mean that he isn’t very much part of that system and that he hasn’t been brought up in it. You know, because of course he, he is also talking about the things that he’s done within that kind of vacuum. It is quite interesting. I believe the next few generations will probably start to see a different side of it, but I think he’s still half in and half out of the system. It’s very complex. Yeah, it’s very, it’s extremely complex, actually, when you think about it, when you read it. I don’t even think he’s really fully understood himself either.
JS: And do you find that believable though when he talks the story that we have been fed about, Megan didn’t know about the royal family? It’s not her book, so it’s not really fair to bring her up in the, but the constant, I was surprised by the racism just kind of beggars belief for me. That’s something that I work on very hard in my life because we are all constantly learning and I want to extend the grace to him. It is entirely possible that he did not realize the institution that he is a very significant player in is built on the backs of Black and brown people around the world. And so every time he’d go, I can’t believe they called her this, I would think, are you kidding me? How did you not know? And, and so I was really torn between rolling my eyes at him and also thinking, okay, but now you know, what, what are we doing now? Those were disappointing moments. I kind of wish he’d given himself another year. You know what I mean? Because he’s only at the realization stage.
SB: Yeah. I think he’s emotionally very immature. And the thing is, I think that just comes from not having any guidance or support growing up. You know, that level of kind of emotional training essentially is supposed to be done by parents. And he was very much left alone, I think, to his own devices, you know, which is why he found kind of unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as like going into drugs. And he talks extensively about it to the point that he doesn’t even realize that it’s a real problem. Because there was quite extensive kind of mention of his drug use. But he always talked about it like, oh, I’m not an addict. And I was like, well that very much sounds like a coping mechanism you’re using, which is a sort of addiction.
So it was quite interesting. I think he hasn’t made a lot of leaps just yet, but I do believe he is emotionally a little bit immature and I think that he’s still learning and I think he’s learning at a much older sort of age. Most people were like, oh yeah, but he’s like 35, 36 years old. You know, he should know this. But just think about it: He’s only really started growing up in the last, like, five years. So he’s quite emotionally stunted. And that’s definitely how I felt when reading the book, that his lack of sort of being able to make connections between events and things like that, and also his lack of realization about the world around him are two aspects of his emotional immaturity. And all the fact also the fact that he just didn’t live outside beyond that bubble until only recently.
JS: Yeah. And you know, as you’re saying that, to be fair to him, he does say, I believe it’s in the last chapter, that he’s sort of mocked around the world and infantilized, and then he says, but I have never owned anything. I’ve never had a key, I never carried cash. So in a sense, it’s absolutely fair that he still has this very immature outlook on life and, and no understanding of how the world actually works, because he, for heaven’s sake! If you grow up in a palace, with hundreds of servants, of course you don’t know how to scrub a toilet. How would he know that?
SB: How would you know? And also there’s an element of kind of like Stockholm syndrome where it is just like he’s been brought up and attached to that world and he believes like that was the only way he could survive. And then, being told that actually all of that was just a façade, and that you were, you know, basically used throughout that time. I think there is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in that, and he’s very much out of that now. But you know, the idea that he still wants to try and build a relationship with his family past, this is kind of being in denial. I very much doubt that’s gonna be a possibility.
JS: He has said in interviews and in the book that he would love to serve the monarchy again. It was sort of a stunning admission.
SB: Yeah. And it’s understandable because that is sort of part of the Stockholm Syndrome. It’s like if you don’t know anything else, it’s very easy to be like, oh, I don’t know how to live without these people. This system. It’s like a lot of complex mental health related things happening within this book.
JS: Was there anything in the book that surprised you? And I’m not just talking about the salacious headlines that are appearing everywhere, But either that or just in terms of the themes of the book or the personal interrogation?
SB: Yeah, I was really quite shocked – I’m basing this obviously on his admission, you know, we don’t know the other side of the story – but his claim about both his father and Camilla’s role in sort of spin doctors and how they’d basically put him under the bus, essentially, to revive their own reputations. Which is a really quite astounding thing to claim. Given, you know, Harry was just so young. He was just a teenager when this claim was made. In the book, he alleged that his father and Camilla had sort of put out to the news that he was an addict, just so that his father wouldn’t be seen as the villain in this Princess Diana story. And that way he would be seen as a single father taking care of an addicted son. That’s a terrible thing to have happened, if that is a reality. So that was really shocking. And the, the level of their relationship with the media. The current King Charles and Camilla, that they were more concerned about their image than how they behave with him or William. Because there is an instance where Prince Harry claims that they did that to William as well, which was really quite surprising because iit just goes to show the sort of toxic nature of this family.
JS: Yeah, he says that his uncle Charles, Diana’s brother called the marching behind the coffin-
JS: I’ll tell you a personal story. My oldest was born the day Diana died, and so I spent those that week, you know, just having post-partum depression and watching TV and sobbing.
SB: Of course.
JS: I remember thinking like, this isn’t what you do to children. And I was brand new. I was a mom of, whatever, six days and I didn’t know what, how to take care of children.
SB: Yeah, my mom did too. She was a huge fan of Princess Diana. And you know, it’s weird cuz in, in the UK, there’s a real kind of affinity with Princess Diana, even now. Yeah, she was absolutely furious. Like when she saw that happen, she was just like, who does that to children like that? Who does?
JS: Right. And that’s the thing that seems to be missing throughout this book, is that urge that we, that most of us have, which is: you protect children.
JS: And I have, I’ve never felt that with these boys, and, and I now realize, I guess that’s, it’s the case for all of them. None of them are ultimately protected except the main person.
SB: That’s right.
JS: And when it comes to children, which let’s be honest, Diana was a child when she married into the family.
SB: She was, yeah. And the same problems. You know, she had some horrific issues. You know, just dealing with, it’s been publicly noted about her eating disorders and how she managed to just keep herself above the parapet, you know, just to keep those children going. You know, she had had a really hard life. I think that’s the problem is, we live in a bit of a strange country, I’m not gonna lie. There’s a lot of admiration for the royal family because of its association with its past, which is, you know, essentially it was at one point it owned 25% of the world. It still continues to have that level of sort of power, even though not really in reality, but people really kind of revere this royal family that that is what it sort of symbolizes. Even though, in reality, it’s something completely different now. It is just a ceremonial role. They have no power in parliament. It’s just a such a bizarre notion that people are so keen to protect this family still. Anyone who basically shakes that foundation of the individual monarch is seen as a villain, is seen as a threat to that imperial system, is seen as a threat to power. This is probably why you’ll notice that such an insane reaction in the media, because they see it as a destabilization of essentially our imperial.
JS: Do you think this book will change anything?
SB: I think it’s like a cyclical thing. You know how Diana’s interview had the same effect on the monarchy where it sort of shook them for a little while. But at some point, it just goes back on track again. I think what it does is just generation by generation, it just moves it forward slightly. But I don’t think it has enough to really just uproot everything, personally. It all depends, at the end of the day, on whether King Charles is capable of doing his role as well as the Queen. And that’s a totally different question that’s got nothing to do with the book. That’s the main thing. [This book] will shake them a little while. They’ll have answers, they’ll need to make statements, but in the end, I think they’ll go back on track again.
JS: Outside of the contents of this book, which is endlessly fun to talk about, I want ask you about the book itself. How did you feel about it? Did you feel it was a well-written book? Did you feel it was a well told story?
SB: I think it’s written pretty well. J.R. Moehringer, who’s a very notable ghost writer, you know. He wrote for the Knight Founder, Phil Knight, in Shoe Dog, which was an absolute success. He’s a very good writer. It sounds like Harry, when he read it, he really does sound like him. But I do believe it could have been edited, honestly. I think it was very long for what it was. Especially part two, where they go into depth about Afghanistan. I think there are parts where it’s quite repetitive. So, I do think a little bit of editing would’ve helped in this situation. But you know, I think Harry got his point across us for.
JS: Which is interesting, because he does talk a lot in the book about how he never liked school. I think on his first date with Megan, he says, he told her, I don’t do books. He makes it clear that he’s not a reader, not into academics. And yet, you said at the beginning of our conversation, it has a Shakespearean quality to it. There are a whole lot of Shakespeare references in it. There are moments like when he’s talking about where he sleeps in Balmoral. He gets the smaller of the two nursery rooms, cuz obviously his brother gets the gigantic one. He talks about getting in his bed that sags, and I’m gonna read you this quote, the linens were “pulled as tight as a snare drum, so expertly smoothed that you could easily spot a century’s worth of patched holes and tears.” Wow. I read that sentence and thought, my God, someone is working on metaphors.
SB: I definitely understand what you’re saying, especially with those kind of metaphors and things like that, how much sort of influence he had over that. I think he probably gave him a picture of what it could have been like, then basically [Moehringer] was able to describe it. But honestly, I don’t believe some of that language was Harry. I do believe you know, there was a lot of writing from Moehringer that brought it to life, essentially. Just so that we could kind of picture what Harry was living in and the, the sort of the environment he lived in. Otherwise, I don’t think he was the one describing all these different bits.
JS: Yes, the lyrical descriptions of hunting pheasants… I just don’t believe that they’re all out there shooting things and quoting Shakespeare, I love thinking about it, but I don’t believe that’s what they’re doing. But it made for a nice read.
Now, is this a book that you would recommend to others? Is it something you would pass on to friends and say, this is a fun afternoon read?
SB: Yeah, no, probably not, funny enough. I think the thing is that people have read this book out of interest about him. But the truth is, is that if this was any other person, no one would. People are only interested in the fact that this is who he is, and they want a little bit more insight into him. It’s a bit like an extension of some of the sort of articles you read about him, a 400 page version of it, but this time he gets to write it in his own words, or almost in his own words. So I think it’ll only be a good read if you are very interested in the subject. Which is why I gave it a three out or five originally.
JS: Gosh, what would I rate this? I think I would give it a five just because I had such a great time reading it, even though it was profoundly sad on every page. But I’m never gonna read it again.
SB: No, no way. We’ll see if we are proved wrong and it gets a Pulitzer or something.
JS: That would be really interesting.
SB: But at this point I was just like, if you’re interested in the subject, then yes, it’s worth the read. But I’m really keen on saying, do not make a judgment without reading it.
JS: And why do you say that?
SB: Oh God, as soon as I got onto Good Reads, there were just one star ratings all over the place without reading it. Which was really unfair, I think, just for people who just want to read it. So I think it’s, it should be given a fair trial.
JS: Okay, so other than Royal Gossip , will you tell us what you’re reading right now?
SB: Oh gosh, so I’ve read two excellent books this week. One was called Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, and another one called The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff. They are already seen in the big lists of twhat books to read because they absolutely fascinating reads. Age of Vice is very much like The Godfather with a bit of The White Tiger in it. It’s fabulous. And Bandit Queens is a very satirical look at gender discrimination in India. There is a widows’ club who are also into hitting people, ie., assassins. So it is quite an intriguing book and worth reading.
JS: I’ve never heard of either of these, so they’re both already released? We can find them already?
SB: Yes. They were both released on January the third. Yes. So definitely check them.
JS: Oh great. Okay. And before you go, will you share with our listeners where they can find you and all the work you do?
SB: Oh, thank you Julie. I’m on Instagram, Facebook, and all the main social media channels, and my website. We’ve just finished our last episode of season two of the How to Be Podcast and we are getting ready for season three and it’s absolutely mammoth with all the amazing guests we’re about to have on, including lots of big authors from this year who will be joining us. So please check it out.
JS: I’m always very grateful for everything you do, and I’m so, so grateful that you jumped on this conversation with me to talk about. Something that, I dunno, feels both big and small at the same time. I always love talking to you and I hope you will come back anytime there’s an interesting book to talk about.
SB: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me on again, Julie. I really appreciate it. I love being here. It’s such a great space, so thank you so much.
JS: Thank you. And I will see you in London for a cup of tea!
SB: Yay. You can’t wait.