A Spot of Brilliance . . .

h1 October 7th, 2006 by jules


If you read Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel from 2003, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, then you already know about Haddon’s dark, wry humor; the sharp way he can turn a phrase and, in just those few words, create deep empathy for a character; his keen, accurate observations on human nature (and all its foibles) and his bitingly honest and perceptive take on family relationships; and his ability to make you laugh out loud at one moment and then tear up the next with a moment of genuine poignancy. In his latest novel, just published,
A Spot of Bother, he’s at it again — this time, putting the “funk” in dysfunctional (as Robin Williams would say) — with his spot-on portrayal of one messed-up family. And, though the subject matter sounds bleak, it’s one addictive and delectable read.

Meet George, the fifty-seven-year-old, newly-retired patriach of the Hall family, living in Peterborough, a small town about 80 miles from London :

Talking was, in George’s opinion, overrated. You could not turn the television on these days without seeing someone discussing their adoption or explaining why they had stabbed their husband. Not that he was averse to talking. Talking was one of life’s pleasures. And everyone needed to sound off now and then over a point of Ruddles about colleagues who did not shower frequently enough, or teenage sons who had returned home drunk in the small hours and thrown up in the dog’s basket. But it did not change anything.

The secret of contentment, George felt, lay in ignoring many things completely. How anyone could work in the same office for ten years or bring up children without putting certain thoughts permanently to the back of their mind was beyond him. And as for that last grim lap when you had a catheter and no teeth, memory loss seemed like a godsend.

This memorable moment of character development, brought to you by Haddon in the novel’s opening, tells you a lot about George Hall and, arguably, serves as partial explanation for the fact that he, his wife, and his adult children are completely and utterly incapable of communicating with one another (though George does make a good point or two in that excerpt). Around this denial-is-not-a-river-in-Egypt existence for this family the novel’s narrative spins, as we watch them practically implode while George takes a slow — and often hysterically funny — descent into madness.

While trying on pants in preparation for the funeral of one of his former co-workers, George sees “a small oval of puffed flesh on his hip, darker than the surrounding skin and flaking slightly. His stomach rose and he was forced to swallow a small amount of vomit which appeared at the back of his mouth. Cancer.” This is the titular spot of bother that sends George into a tailspin of despair (“a relentless, grinding dread which rumbled and thundered and made the world dark”), which he goes about ever-so politely and so as not to bother anyone and which has to do with a host of other worries in a man who all of a sudden has “the problem of getting through the next five minutes.” Meanwhile, his wife, Jean, is having an affair with another of George’s former colleagues; his daughter, Katie — whose “opinions were so violent (could wallpaper matter that much?)” — and the mother of Jacob, a toddler (oh, Haddon knows how to nail a toddler’s behavior and speech!), is about to marry Ray, a man no one in the family approves of; and Jamie, his not-fully-out-of-the-closet gay son, watches his relationship with his lover, Tony, fall apart after telling him he’s not invited to Katie’s wedding (“Jamie needed someone who made him uncomfortable. Because getting too comfortable was the thin end of a wedge whose thick end involved him turning into his father”). This is no more than what the book’s back cover will tell you, and I won’t disclose any more in order for the book’s plot and brilliant characterizations to reveal themselves to you should you want to read it. But trust me when I say that Haddon’s strength is to make it so that you just can’t look away from this family’s downward spiral and, furthermore, to have you muttering — as The Washington Post’s review put it — been there, done that, no matter who you are or what family you come from.

All Haddon’s characters in this novel leap off the page (which, again, he manages to do often with merely the turn of a single phrase; one of my favorite moments is in the description of Jean’s born-again Christian sister, whom Jean is not looking forward to seeing: “But, God, the woman could make you feel greedy and self-centered just by the way she wore a shapeless faun cardigan”). Or this moment of capturing a character’s inner monologue, this time the voice of George. And it’s George I won’t forget for a long time. Whether or not he truly has cancer and/or finds out about his wife’s affair is for you to find out; unfortunately for George, he’s the recipient of some very poor professional medical advice and is surrounded by a rather self-absorped family. This is where the unputdownableness (can we make that a word?) of the book comes in (as well as the fact that the chapters are short), especially after George takes matters into his own hands with a pair of scissors in one of the most gruesome, yet believable, moments I’ve read in a long time — I was anxious to see George get the help and attention he needed.

And while keeping us laughing despite ourselves, it’s in George’s moments of anxiety that we find the moments of poignancy that had me putting down the book to just savor them for a moment or two before I continued. After watching a bit of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and being disturbed (in an already tenuous mental state) by the Orcs, George figures: “{I}f he woke at night and the Orcs with the boiled, skinless faces were waiting in their silent hundreds in the moonlit gardens he found that he could gain some temporary respite by going into the bathroom, wedging himself between the toilet and the bath and singing very quietly to himself the songs he remembered singing when he was a small child” . . . and, earlier in the novel:

Jacob was laughing. Ray was laughing. And it occurred to George that if he could find the handle he might be able to open up the secret door and slide down that long chute all the way back to childhood and someone would take care of him and he would be safe.

When the family (um, finally) suspects some psychological problems in George, Katie confronts him, and George loses all inhibitions and his once-despised tendency to talk: “She had never heard him sound so straightforward. She got the eerie sense that they were doing actual communication for the first time. It was like finding a new door in the living-room wall. It was not entirely pleasant” . . . and here we see the extent of this family’s dysfunctional funk. The points-of-view in each chapter rotate from George to Jean to Katie to Jamie, and as we reach the book’s climax in the form of Katie’s wedding, Haddon expertly pulls the book’s many character and plot threads together tightly to heighten the tension — and to create both one of the funniest and saddest wedding receptions you’ll probably ever read about.

I felt that the ending, as in the very last page, rang a bit untrue, a bit too pat and tidy for a man with a string of psychological and emotional woes. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure exactly where George was heading, psychologically, in the book’s final words. And I would have appreciated a glossary of British words/phrases, as cumbersome as that sounds. Though I just forged ahead, using context as best I could to figure out some terms, I had to interrupt my reading reverie in the book’s mid-section to decipher what “throwing a wobbly” meant at the quite successful dramatic closing of one chapter. But, all in all, I recommend this book heartily with no spots of bother, no hesitation. Haddon is one to keep watching.

4 comments to “A Spot of Brilliance . . .”

  1. Ooh, I have been on the waiting list at my library for this one for ages. I am even more anxious to read it now. Thanks!

  2. I’ve been on the fence on this one, but I think I’ll read it (or listen to it) now. Thanks for the review 🙂

  3. Great, Kelly! You’ll have to tell me what *you* think about the ending….

  4. Okay, thanks to Finding Wonderland for this link. Who knew?

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