Spare audiobook review: A case for listening to, not reading, Prince Harry's autobiography

The British royal retells his version of events aloud, striking an emotional chord the written word can't

Powered by automated translation

Plenty has been written about Spare, the autobiography of Prince Harry, in recent weeks.

Since the book was released early in Spain last week, the most explosive parts have been dissected, debated, disapproved of and dismissed. For anyone who is now going to read Spare, there will be few surprises.

We know about his drug use, how he felt about his now-stepmother Camilla, Queen Consort as a teen, how distant his father King Charles III was for much of his childhood and that he has had physical fights with his brother, Prince William as an adult. We also now know that he blames Prince William and his wife Kate for choosing his Nazi fancy dress costume and Harry’s side of the Meghan versus Kate fallout in the run-up to the wedding.

Critics of the Duke of Sussex will read the book and see it as little more than self-indulgence, with little interest in the context of many of the most salacious stories. Fans will see it as 416 pages that give him the opportunity to tell his side of the story after 38 years of seeing it, in various versions, written for him in the British press.

Enter the audiobook: 15 hours and 39 minutes of Prince Harry reading Spare aloud, which provides an undeniable nuance. Actively listening to Prince Harry telling his side of the story is key — it is more than we had in Netflix's Harry and Meghan documentary, and the kind of revelations Oprah Winfrey would have loved to have teased out in her March 2021 interview with the couple — and he deserves to tell his story in full, not simply in selective headline excerpts.

“My memory is my memory, it does what it does, gathers and curates as it sees fit, and there is just as much truth in what I remember, and how I remember it, as there is in so-called objective facts,” Prince Harry says in chapter two, covering his back for undeniable claims of misremembering. He undoubtedly knew that his own grandmother Queen Elizabeth II’s 2021 comment, “recollections may vary”, would be levelled at plenty of his claims.

The audiobook isn't an easy listen. Hearing Prince Harry recount the death of his mother, Princess Diana, and the years following her death is heartbreaking at times. After an epilogue that recalls an informal meeting with his father and brother following Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021, which Prince Harry describes as like a “duel”, Spare really begins with Princess Diana’s death.

In the first chapter, the British royal recalls a holiday to St Tropez with his mother and brother in the summer of 1997. He recalls meeting “mummy’s friend", who he describes as having “raven hair, leathery tan, a bone-white smile”. It’s clear that he is referring to Dodi Fayed, but Harry calls him “blah blah”; he later says he now knows he was his mother’s boyfriend.

Going into chapter two, anyone familiar with late 20th-century British history will feel tense. Prince Harry has left St Tropez, and his mother, and is in Balmoral, the royal family’s estate in the north of Scotland. It is where the two young princes were on holiday with their father and his family in August 1997, when Princess Diana died.

Images of Prince Harry, aged 12, and Prince William, aged 15, greeting mourners outside Kensington Palace in the days after she died and walking behind their mother’s coffin at her funeral are among the most famous of the nineties. However, we’ve never heard Prince Harry’s version of events. While I am not entirely sure we needed to be privy to every one of his most intimate revelations in Spare, it does seem fair that after more than 25 years of discussing the death of Princess Diana, the world hears from one of the two people on earth it affected the most.

In Spare, almost everything comes back to Princess Diana. Not just in the early chapters, which are squarely about her and life after her death, but as the young royal becomes a man and informing his decision to step down as a senior royal.

He reveals, painfully, that he thought his mother was still alive, just hiding or on the run, for years.

“Soon, soon she’ll send for me and Willy,” he says of his brother, adding that he confided his suspicions to Prince William, who he says admitted the thought had also crossed his mind. As late as 2001, he had what he saw as tangible evidence that she could still be alive.

As an adult, he obtained a police report that he hoped would bring him closure. The report included pictures of Princess Diana at the accident, which he said didn’t help give him closure, but fuelled his hope she was still alive. During his gap year, he recalls an incident with a leopard, which he inferred as a message from his mother.

“I thought of my mother. This leopard was, without any doubt, a sign sent by her, a messenger to tell me: ‘Everything is OK. And will be OK,'” he says.

At times, it feels like he is trying, and broadly failing, to make himself seem normal. His anecdotes range from the mundane — crushing a whole pack of Opal Fruits into one giant chewy sweet, for example — to the exceptional. He recalls travelling to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela and the Spice Girls on the first school holiday after the death of Princess Diana.

For many, however, the most unrelatable part of Spare will be his interfamilial relationships. While he has fond stories of his great-grandmother, the Queen Mother, who he calls gan gan, and his granny and grandpa, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, he says he “never hugged granny,” and “wondered if pa had ever hugged her”. Whenever he quotes King Charles speaking to him, he says he called him “darling boy”, but describes him as a man who was “not ready for parenthood”. He recalls the years he wasn't allowed to speak to his brother while they attended Eton together.

He also has a very frank relationship with his role within the family, which goes some way to explaining how he has found himself telling all about a famously guarded institution. He calls himself the “shadow, support, plan B” for Prince William, the heir and plan a, who he calls his “beloved brother, [his] arch nemesis”.

The words spoken aloud on the audiobook are cutting. He is, I think, trying to sound at peace with the cards he was dealt, but it comes across loaded with venom.

There is plenty to feel sorry for Prince Harry for, and it seems clear that plenty of his complaints carry weight. But even after listening to his heartbreaking recollections of his childhood and its traumas, as an adult, much of what he says sounds like a series of unrelatable complaints, which is where he has lost many of his supporters.

Updated: January 10, 2023, 4:05 PM