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Saturday, September 2nd, 2006
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A Spot of Bother: A Novel

by Mark Haddon

A Curious Comedy of Manners

A review by Georgie Lewis

A Spot of Bother opens with George slowly adjusting to his new retirement when he is called upon to attend a funeral of an old colleague. He requires a new suit for the funeral and while in the changing room of the clothing store he finds a lesion on his hip, and suddenly, in one mighty leap of conjecture assumes death is terrifyingly imminent.

As if the cold hand of death tightening its grip on George's neck wasn't bad enough, his daughter Katie announces her engagement to Ray, a very large man of whom George is vaguely distrustful. It will be the impetuous and fiery Katie's second marriage and frankly George is not the only one concerned; Katie's mother, Jean, and her brother Jamie are both having a hard time dealing with it, partly sensing Katie's own mixed feelings, but also with convoluted rationales of their own. There is tension in the air all around and Jean's extramarital affair -- which Katie and Jamie are exasperated by and George appears oblivious to -- is not making things easier. Neither is Jamie's boyfriend, Tony, who believes that accompanying Jamie to the wedding will be a sign of Jamie's commitment to their relationship; something Jamie is somewhat ambivalent about.

This tangle of messiness, emotional and physical, is the perfect set-up for a comedy of manners, a form the British are masters at. Even the title speaks to the classic English temperament: all stoical and polite, and terrified of making a fuss. And, while Haddon orchestrates this novel with an eye to the melodramatic and comedic narrative, once again his huge heart can't help but imbue A Spot of Bother with the same tremendous empathy for which The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time garnered so much praise.

While written in a light and nimble prose, A Spot of Bother is actually a dense and lush exploration of family dynamics and human frailty wherein stumbling attempts to lead a planned existence crash into the obstacles encountered as one enters the realm of the emotion. Relationships in all their permutations are given space for examination here, free from harsh moral judgment. For example, the affair between Jean and David is convincing, and the first scene between the two of them is when we discover Jean's motivations. The sex between them and the thoughts going through Jean's head could be, in another writer's hands, clichéd, and yet Haddon's skill is in his subtle individuation. He makes it clear why this is important to Jean and why, when she later thinks about George, it is his passivity that "made it easier. The guilt. Or the lack of it."

Haddon gets the interior dialogues of all his characters just right; the things we think about when all around is stillness or even chaos, the observations we make in our heads when we retreat. His characters muse about the past, about future possibilities, and all the while the reader is there nodding knowingly because while it is not our internal dialogue, we all have one, and, after all, the thoughts of strangers are not that different from our own.

They can also be pretty amusing to listen in on, like getting George's impressions while attending his colleague's funeral here:

The vicar made his way to the pulpit and delivered his eulogy. "A businessman, a sportsman, a family man. 'Work hard, play hard.' That was his motto." He clearly knew nothing about Bob.

On the other hand if you never set foot in a church when you were alive you could hardly expect them to pull out all the stops when you were dead. And no one wanted the truth ("He was a man incapable of seeing a large-breasted woman without making some infantile remark. In later years his breath was not good.")

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.

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