John Harding - One Big Damn Puzzler

John Harding and his book One Big Damn Puzzler is a funny laugh out loud read with lots of interesting themes to discuss too. We loved this book

This is a most entertaining book that will have you laughing out loud.

Filled with magic, Shakespeare, love and some more sinister topics like land mines and materialism

Many would argue that this should have been our book of the year, but it got pipped at the post by another.

A great read for anyone, including a book club.

About The Author

John Harding

Harding (the author, as there are a few other famous John Hardings) is a UK writer.

He is originally from Cambridgeshire and studied English at Oxford University.

He has written 4 books in total so far:

What We Did On holiday (2000)

When The Sun Shines (2002)

One Big Damn Puzzler (2005)

Florence And Giles (2010)

The Plot / Story

One Big Damn Puzzler John Harding

The story is set in a remote south pacific island, inhabited by simple tribesman. They are content and enjoy their life on the island.

They have some rather interesting traditions (many including magic) and their ideas about sex, love, death and conception range from the funny to the touching!

Everyone goes to loo on the "shitting beach"

Many of the islanders have missing limbs due to the US land mines placed on the island in WWII.

Managua is one of the tribesman, who sees himself as being above the other tribesman due to his literacy levels. He has found a Shakespeare book and has spent his time translating it into Pidgin English.

So the title of the book is part of his translation for the famous quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet - "To be or not to be, that is the question!" - "Is be or is be not, is be one big damn puzzler"

In fact, a lot of the book is written in pidgin English, which takes a bit of getting used to, but is in itself,  funny.

Then an English lawyer, William Hardt,  arrives on the island. He is a funny character with some OCD tendencies when it comes to his bathroom activities.  He is not the first Westerner on the island - the Americans with their bombs and at some point some Englishmen with some Shakespeare.

William Hardt is a human rights lawyer and wants to see these islanders get justice for their missing limbs.

He is successful and an in flux of American dollars arrives for the islanders. The results are however catastrophic. The building work commences and turns the beautiful island into an eye-sore. The islanders no longer live off the fruits of the land. Instead they play computer games all day and eat junk food. They become obese and ill. William Hardt's seemingly good intentions have been misguided.


One Big Damn Puzzler John Harding

Shakespeare Comparisons

We enjoyed trying to find links between Shakespeare's works and this book. I am sure there are many more but we discussed:

  • Daughter-less families dressing their boys up as girls
  • The appearances of ghosts like in hamlet
  • Love potions - feature in Romeo and Juliet
  • The Hamlet play is acted out as part of the story

Globalisation and Materialism

The impact that the influx of money has on the islanders is dramatic. Coca Cola available in vast quantities, hotels, TV's, fast food - The worst of our modern society.

The islanders lose their rituals and basic ways of life - this simple existence is much more natural. The impact that the fast food has on their bodies is enough to show the author's contempt for globalisation and  materialism.


Many of the rituals involve magic, or the islanders belief in magic. The magic of how a woman becomes pregnant, or the ritual of seeing old "dead friends" high on drugs all adds both humour and with respect to conception, innocence.

Sex and Poo!

The islanders are very matter of fact about both acts, with the Englishman seeming like a prude, particularly when it comes to going to the  "shitting beach." Have western societies made too much of these acts we wondered.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorders

Defined by Wikipedia as " an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry; by repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing the associated anxiety;"

We see this through the behaviours of the English lawyer and at times they are funny, and other times we do feel empathy for his condition.


One Big Damn Puzzler John Harding

Did you laugh out loud at any point in this book? Which bits?

How did you cope with the pidgin English writing?

The tribes on the island are isolated and know little of the outside world. Does this help explain their belief in magic?

Discuss the many tribal rituals surrounding love, death, pregnancy etc. Did you find these funny, endearing or silly?

The author, John Harding has been criticised for his betrayal of women in this book. Do you agree with the criticism or is this just in keeping with the book?

Some have said that Harding treads just on the line of political correctness in One Big Damn Puzzler. Do you agree? Or do you think he oversteps the mark at all? Does he ever patronize the islanders?

Discuss the themes of globalization and materialism in the book. Is there any good to come out of the money arriving on the island?

Did you learn anything about O.C.D. - did it make you feel sorry for William Hardt

What are the links between Shakespeare's works and One Big Damn Puzzler?


John Harding One Big Damn Puzzler

Our Book club loved this novel. We found it very entertaining, and totally unique. We gave it 8/10.

The pidgin English was unusual and after just a couple of chapters, it was easy to follow.

The characters are diverse and querky and we enjoyed the rituals and immediate differences from a western culture.

We didn't agree with some of the criticism around Harding's treatment of women - it fitted with the book and the remote islanders, just fine.

Nor did we find it patronising towards the islanders. We thought it passed the political correctness test - just!

This book is funny and a really unusual read. Perfect for a book club

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