After having read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon my expectations for his second novel, A Spot of Bother, where quite high. I am happy to say that I was not in the least bit disappointed with this book.
George Hall is out shopping for pants one day when he sees a slight discoloration on his leg, the “spot of bother” which somehow starts the downward fall of George’s sanity. George is 61 and newly retired, with quite the dysfunctional family that seems to be unable to communicate even with the simplest generic conversation topics. His daughter Katie announces that she will be marrying Ray, a man her parents do not approve of. Jaime, his homosexual son, keeps minimum contact with his family. Jean, George’s wife, seems to find her life at a standstill and finds comfort in the arms of another man, David. Each chapter is told through the eyes of a different character, so we able to see how they misunderstand each other’s intentions and never properly explain themselves or their actions.
At the heart of the story is George. A quiet, elderly man who tries to “go insane politely” as the back cover synopsis so cleverly put it. George keeps the lesion on his leg a secret from his family for as long as possible, even keeping his mental breakdown a secret. This is not a difficult task to accomplish as each member of the family is wrapped up in their own troubles and tend to forget about their ailing father/husband.
“His mind was malfunctioning. He had to bring it under control. He had it done it before. He had shared a house with his daughter for eighteen years without coming to blows, for starters. When his mother died he went back into the office the following morning to make sure the Glasgow deal did not fall through.” This glimpse into the early stages of George’s mind highlight his determination to not let his family or friends know that there was anything wrong with him. To help himself cope, George started taking long walks, drinking much more regularly and talking more than ever to his wife. George’s newfound dependence on wife ultimately becomes the major snap in his brain when he finds her in bed with David after a particularly troubling mental experience at the train station.
Haddon somehow manages to interject a stealthy sense of humor in what would otherwise be a completely tragic story. Jaime, however detached from his family, seems to be glue that keeps his family from completely shattering. The family moves together in an ebb and flow of drama as their individual lives collapse at the same time. There were a few squeamish moments of the book, particularly centering on George’s final mental snap in the family bathroom. Haddon has a steady pace, keeping most chapters under 5 pages and keeping a steady rhythm of alternating between characters. Haddon’s wit keeps this book from falling under the Hallmark or Lifetime style of a cheesy family melodrama. It is neither cheesy nor superficial, but a touching and comic tale of family trying to keep it together.
FINAL GRADE: A