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A Spot of Bother: A Novelby Mark Haddon
A second novel as good as the first. The follow-up to A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is hilarious, dark, and entirely human. A Spot of Bother is the story of the highly dysfunctional Hall family: George, recently retired and going a bit crazy; his wife, Jean, none too attentive to George's troubles; their son, Jamie, who is having trouble deciding how or if he can commit to his boyfriend; and their daughter, Katie, a single mother getting ready to marry a man no one's too keen on. Haddon, to me, is a storyteller along the lines of John Irving or Nick Hornby. The premise and the goings-on can be fairly far-fetched, but I always end up caring for the characters and being drawn into the story.
A Spot of Bother is an adroit and highly accomplished comedy of manners, which while revealing Haddon's sharp, wry sense of humor also displays a superb understanding of the human condition in all of its colorful, crazy permutations. In what seems like effortless prose, Haddon describes a few weeks of a family's life with such astuteness and empathy (so like that which he displayed in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) that I was utterly hypnotized.
"A Spot of Bother is such a pleasure to read — it is funny, wry, and well-paced — that it is only later that you realize what a thoughtful novel it is. Mark Haddon created a unique voice in Christopher, his autistic fifteen-year-old narrator of The Curious Incident, and the book went on to win the Whitbread Book of the Year. A Spot of Bother is less quirky, less dazzlingly ambitious, yet to my mind it is just as satisfying and emotionally rich." Georgie Lewis, Powells.com (read the entire Powells.com review)
Synopses & Reviews
George Hall is an unobtrusive man. A little distant, perhaps, a little cautious, not quite at ease with the emotional demands of fatherhood or of manly bonhomie. "The secret of contentment, George felt, lay in ignoring many things completely." Some things in life can't be ignored, however: his tempestuous daughter Katie's deeply inappropriate boyfriend Ray, for instance, or the sudden appearance of a red circular rash on his hip.
At 57, George is settling down to a comfortable retirement, building a shed in his garden and enjoying the freedom to be alone when he wants. But then he runs into a spot of bother. That red circular rash on his hip: George convinces himself it's skin cancer. And the deeply inappropriate Ray? Katie announces he will become her second husband. The planning for these frowned-upon nuptials proves a great inconvenience to George's wife, Jean, who is carrying on a late-life affair with her husband's ex-colleague. The Halls do not approve of Ray, for vague reasons summed up by their son Jamie's observation that Ray has "strangler's hands." Jamie himself has his own problems — his tidy and pleasant life comes apart when he fails to invite his lover, Tony, to Katie's wedding. And Katie, a woman whose ferocious temper once led to the maiming of a carjacker, can't decide if she loves Ray, or loves the wonderful way he has with her son Jacob.
Unnoticed in the uproar, George quietly begins to go mad. The way these damaged people fall apart — and come together — as a family is the true subject of Haddon's hilarious and disturbing portrait of a dignified man trying to go insane politely.
A Spot of Bother is Mark Haddon's unforgettable follow-up to the internationally beloved bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Once again, Haddon proves a master of a story at once hilarious, poignant, dark, and profoundly human. Here the madness — literally — of family life proves rich comic fodder for Haddon's crackling prose and bittersweet insights into misdirected love.
"As psychiatrist R.D. Laing once observed, the family is a machine designed to inflict insanity. Sometimes the buildup of stress merely leads to a never-ending tension, that guarded silence of an armed camp when the worn-out legionnaires await the attack at dawn. At other times, the stresses go even further, breaking forth in unending arguments, crippling anxiety, depression, the abuse of drink and... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) drugs, emotional coldness, infidelity, delusion, violence, perhaps even murder or suicide. Sounds pretty bad, right? To Mark Haddon, in his superbly entertaining new book, any or all of these is hardly more than 'a spot of bother.' Haddon's first novel, the prize-winning best-seller 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,' managed a teeter-totter's balance between humor and pathos, with a mystery thrown in to boot. In 'A Spot of Bother' he takes on marital and domestic strife, and somehow manages to make us smile, even laugh, as we follow the upheavals in the tormented Hall family as it gradually spins out of control. Haddon's particular genius, however, lies in the unobtrusive way he makes us identify with his characters. Any of us might be George Hall or his wife, Jean, or his adult children, Katie and Jamie. We have felt what they feel, thought their thoughts, glimpsed their faces in our own bathroom mirrors. A recently retired midlevel executive, George Hall is the kind of guy who potters around in the backyard building a shed, reads the occasional Flashman novel and plans to take up drawing, maybe even watercolors, now that he has some time. Jean is quite proud of him. Her friend 'Pauline's husband started to go downhill as soon as they handed him the engraved decanter. Eight weeks later he was in the middle of the lawn at 3:00 a.m. with a bottle of Scotch inside him, barking like a dog.' Before 'A Spot of Bother' is over, Pauline's poor husband will seem relatively well adjusted. One afternoon George goes downtown to buy a black suit for the funeral of a former colleague. While trying on the trousers, he notices '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.' George immediately realizes that he will now have to kill himself, the only question being when and by what means. His mind reviews the options. George's mind is, in fact, always reviewing the options. If not quite a hypochondriac, he nonetheless suffers from a hyperactive imagination, and he consistently imagines the worse. In the past, whenever he had been forced to fly, 'he stared doggedly at the seat back in front of him trying desperately to pretend that he was sitting in the living room at home. But every few minutes he would hear a sinister chime and see a little red light flashing in the bulkhead to his right, secretly informing the cabin crew that the pilot was wrestling with some fatal malfunction in the cockpit.' Naturally, George tells no one about his fear that he's dying of cancer. And, as life will have it, after he returns home, he learns that his divorced daughter has unexpectedly decided to marry her utterly inappropriate boyfriend, Ray. 'The main problem, George felt, was Ray's size. He looked like an ordinary person who had been magnified. He moved more slowly than other people, the way the larger animals in zoos did. Giraffes. Buffalo. He lowered his head to go through doorways and had what Jamie unkindly but accurately described as "strangler's hands."' But Katie is more than a little desperate, and just might be marrying Ray because he can give her a decent home and because he loves to play with her 2-year-old, Jacob. Good enough reasons, no? It's really unfair that her family doesn't approve of him. Besides, who are they to judge? Brother Jamie is gay, after all, and their mother has recently begun 'shagging one of Dad's old colleagues,' even if Dad himself seems to imagine that his wife's new silk scarves and a distinct 'twinkle' are due to her enthusiasm for an Italian-language class. Meanwhile, George continues to suffer silently. 'With blinding clarity he realized that everyone was frolicking blindly in a summer meadow surrounded by a dark and impenetrable forest, waiting for that grim day on which they were dragged into the dark beyond the trees and individually butchered.' Occasionally, he reassures himself that the lesion is nothing, maybe just some eczema; at other times, that it's invisibly, quietly spreading throughout his body. One night he wanders up to Jean 'holding a soiled Q-tip to ask whether she thought it was normal to have that much wax in one's ear.' He starts sipping lots of wine, then taking pills. George may be the extreme case here, but everyone around him is suffering. Katie's girlfriends ask if she really loves Ray, and the next day her gorgeous ex-husband, Graham, invites her out for coffee. Jamie's perfect London existence starts to unravel when he decides that he simply can't face bringing his boyfriend, Tony, to the wedding. Jean realizes that her own carefully balanced life was 'becoming looser and messier, and moving slowly beyond her control.' Which does she want more, her kind, attentive lover or her distracted husband and angry children? Haddon relates these ever-spiraling emotional crises in short, three- or four-page chapters, shifting the viewpoint from one Hall to another, gradually tightening the focus so that all the story lines will come to a head on the wedding day. To my mind, this clockwork timing just slightly undermines 'A Spot of Bother.' Haddon has made us suffer his characters' confusions, heartaches and desperation. But then their problems are all resolved in an oddly conventional, even pat, Hollywood finale. The truest eloquence, it's been said, includes an occasional stutter. Mark Haddon never stutters. 'A Spot of Bother' is too expert and smooth for that. Still, one should hardly disdain fine craftsmanship, especially when a novel gets so many things exactly right. You will be hard put to find a more realistic 2-year-old in fiction than young Jacob, with his passion for Bob the Builder videos and his manly pride in going poo. Jean's lover, David, despite his provincial urbanity, is — surprise, surprise — a truly kind and respectful man. Indeed, the most admirable people in the entire book are David; Jamie's carpenter-boyfriend, Tony; and the long-suffering Ray. What matters most, though, is the way that Haddon fleshes out his characters with details and quirks that might have been stolen from the reader's own psyche: At one point, for instance, Katie takes up 'the ballpoint pen Ray had been playing with and lined it up with the grain of the tabletop. Maybe if she could place it with absolute accuracy her life wouldn't fall apart.' Been there, done that. In several ways, Mark Haddon's new novel recalls last year's 'On Beauty,' Zadie Smith's similar portrait of a dysfunctional, i.e., typical, family. Love hurts and heals, and half the time while reading 'A Spot of Bother' you won't be sure whether to laugh or cry. Which is, I suppose, precisely the point. Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda(at)gmail.com. He discusses books each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com." Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"It's a pleasant comic caper, the literary equivalent of a night spent watching a romantic comedy. There's nothing wrong with it, but nothing hugely memorable, either." San Francisco Chronicle
"The surprise is that after spending a few hundred pages with these not- awfully-lovable characters, you come to regard them with something like affection." Wall Street Journal
"Though Haddon is a clever writer...the results here fall somewhere between the psychological depth of Anne Tyler and the breeziness of Nick Hornby. Takes too long to arrive at its farcical finale and seems too slight in the process." Kirkus Reviews
"Haddon perfectly captures his characters' frailties and strengths while injecting humor with pinpoint accuracy. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Full of dialogue too clever by half, too perfectly timed to feel sincere. Even the book's one child can occasionally fire back zingers, giving this story the swift-moving, shallow current feel of television — and the same lasting power." Newsday
"A Spot of Bother snaps, crackles and pops with humor and pathos as Haddon depicts family members driving one another crazy." Los Angeles Times
One of the most keenly awaited books of the year: the new novel from Mark Haddon. "The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time" won no fewer than 17 literary prizes, including the Whitbread, and has sold in copious quantities in all its editions. "A Spot Of Bother" begins with George Hall, a retired man in his sixties, finding a mark on his hip, which he is convinced is skin cancer. His increasingly odd behaviour is a worry to his family, but they have their own concerns to deal with. Part family-farce, part clear-eyed presentation of mental illness, part novel of manners, all written in Mark Haddon's unique and affecting style.
About the Author
Mark Haddon is the author of the international bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year award. In addition to the recently published The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, a collection of poetry, Haddon has also written and illustrated numerous children's books and received several awards for his television screenplays.
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