Monday, 11 July 2011

A Spot of Bother (Mark Haddon)

--The blurb--
"At fifty-seven, George is settling down to a comfortable retirement, building a shed in his garden, reading historical novels, listening to a bit of light jazz. Then Katie, his unpredictable daughter, announces that she is getting remarried, to Ray. Her family is not pleased - as her brother Jamie observes, Ray has 'strangler's hands'. Katie can't decide if she loves Ray, or loves the way he cares for her son Jacob, and her mother Jean is a bit put out by the way the wedding planning gets in the way of her affair with one of her husband's former colleagues. And the tidy and pleasant life Jamie has created crumbles when he fails to invite his lover, Tony, to the dreaded nuptials. Unnoticed in the uproar, George discovers a sinister lesion on his hip, and quietly begins to lose his mind."

--The review--
In trying to write about mental illness, authors arguably set themselves up for an insurmountable task. If they have experienced mental illness themselves they can risk seeming mawkish and narcissistic; if they have not, they risk their portrayal seeming trite or unrealistic. Happily, Haddon seems to have struck a good balance: the speed at which George descends into madness, and the reason for it, appears, you could say to be superficial, silly, or unbelievable. However, the descriptions of George's madness once he is there, and the actions borne of this madness, are so apparently realistic and at times even so gruesome that we are compelled to read on, completely taken in, while at the same time, almost wanting to shut our eyes and skip a few pages and be told when the scary part's over.

The beauty of Haddon's second novel, though, does not just stem from his descriptions of George's mental state - he is only part of his family's unravelling and hapless mess. What all of the conflicts in the book come down to is a total lack of communication between all concerned; predictably, it all erupts in comic style. Even though we know it will all end badly, we carry on reading for the pleasure of Haddon's brilliantly-constructed dénouement. It is a complex narrative that the author does well to bring together, and its gripping nature and deftly-sketched characters mean that you can easily read the whole thing straight through in two or three hours. It also all ends in a very modest and British fashion, with the hero and heroine eating sandwiches and sipping tea in front of the telly and with an "all's well that end's well" kind of feel, like soap opera characters coming to the end of yet another crazy adventure.

While 'A Spot of Bother' is not laugh-out-loud funny, this is recognised by critics and, in any case, is never something the book claims to be - although in televisual format it could have the potential to be so due to comic timing and delivery. However, it is darkly and drily humorous, with Haddon's similes in particular being master strokes that yes, even cause genuine laughter out loud on occasion.

The author's debut, the highly feted Curious Incident, set the bar almost unbearably high. Thankfully, in 'A Spot of Bother' Haddon has possibly not only met but also exceeded expectations, but in an equally different and original way. It appears that Haddon chooses to concentrate mainly on children's literature, and while this is a blessing for our young inheritors, it is rather a shame for us. I do rather hope that the five years that have elapsed since the publication of 'A Spot of Bother' could soon herald a new and much-anticipated volume for adults.

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