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A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

By Jack | Books | August 3, 2009 |

By Jack | Books | August 3, 2009 |

I dare say I can’t even begin to say anything about this book without first saying: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a tequila book. You know how when you say the word tequila, at least half your listeners will go “awww” caught momentarily in some horrific tequila memory? It’s almost universal. This book elicits a similar response with the exception that the memory is no NO WAY horrific. It’s just that good.

So, for a girl who prides herself on her expectation management skills, having just finished some stellar Garland, I truly feel like I am tempting the fates. So, I really hunkered down and told myself as long this book did anything short of sucking I would be happy.

For anyone whose ever felt darkness coming (and who hasn’t?) this is your novel.

A Spot of Bother is a novel about George, his wife Jean, their son Jamie, daughter Katie, and the necessary peripheral people that come with each. Jean is having an affair, Jamie is a (gasp) homosexual, Katie is about to marry a man she doesn’t love, and George is slowly, relatively gracefully going insane. Which among them is craziest is totally a matter of opinion.

The novel covers about an eight week period after George first discovers his “cancer” at a suit fitting for the funeral of a friend. George, of course, keeps his cancer (and his crazy) secret, which really isn’t that difficult when you are surrounded by some of the most self-absorbed people on the planet. To the point where I am a little surprised I was not more wholly annoyed with all of them, George included.

It’s the humor that saves it. Haddon’s story is damn funny. The perspective changes seamlessly between each of the family members. Often times specific events are narrated from Jean’s perspective, only to be completely repeated from Katie’s or George’s in the very next pages. Initially, it highlights the total self-absorption of the characters, but as the novel progresses it demonstrates the evolutions of the various characters and at the same time illustrates how easy it is to miss the point — for all of us.

As the book progresses, each of the characters has to come out of themselves, to varying degrees. Jamie is probably the funniest and most methodical about it. After a anti-climatic break up and the requisite self-serving wallowing, Jamie decides he wants to fix it. He does so mostly because he realizes he’s in danger of becoming one of those people “who cares about furniture more than other people” which would mean he would spend all of his time with others like him, which means they would care more about the furniture than they care about him. You see how this is going. The interior conversations Jamie has with himself about how to go about caring about other people and what it means to him on his way to actually caring about other people is priceless.

So, it’s a really funny sad book. All of the “comic caper” reviews had me expecting something a little lighter to be honest. There is real sadness in this book. Sadness about what real life is really like and what it eventually becomes, expectation, fear. It is definitely funny when a grown man of a certain position in life finds himself lying in a ditch to avoid relatives on the street, except that it’s really not. Part of the gift of this writer is that he can make us laugh about it, but at it’s core it’s a comedy about a whole lot of things most of us don’t find very funny.

I would call this novel a success. It’s not as tight as the previous, but c’mon. There are moments where the characters (Jean especially, I think) become grating to the point where you just don’t want to hear it anymore, or you want to slap them upside their heads; however, as soon as you lose patience Haddon somehow turns it around by making you laugh or making you realize you’re like that too.

I’m relieved. It’s far better than I dared hoped.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Jack’s reviews, check out his blog, Reads for Fun.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.