A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon



When you're convinced you have cancer, life seems so much more like it is ... absolute crap.

My thoughts

The book in one sentence: A portrait of the Hall family - staid father George, ho-hum Jean, tempestuous Katie, gay Jamie - as their relationships are tested as they live their everyday lives.

I've already read Haddon's celebrated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and found it such an interesting read. If you're expecting something similar, hold your horses, because A Spot of Bother is a totally different novel. Equally engaging, but very, very different.

We pretend that things are outwardly ok, but we all deal with our own private battles. And where do these battles take place? Within our family.
This is a book about ordinary people. But the ordinariness of people is the stuff of every day life. This isn't some huge production. It's a heavy dose of reality. To me it reads like a modern-day Little Women, where little details, innocuous conversations, and small discoveries are what the story is all about and not merely diversions to a grand plot. Of course the characters are very contemporary and struggling with today's issues: growing old, temporary insanity, affairs, falling (and staying in love), coming out of the closet.

Ok, I take it all back. This book reminds me of Six Feet Under, that incredible HBO series with episodes starting with a death. (Aside: Stop reading this paragraph if you haven't watched Six Feet Under. If you weren't hooked on this series, you probably don't have a TV! Think about it: Ruth = Jean, George = George, David = Jamie. Brenda = Katie [on a tamer scale]. Same issues too.)

***

I got so engrossed in Haddon's characters. The portraits he paints are vivid and real that they could be people I know. Or even people I love. And he writes without apology or glossing over and certainly no cliches. It is funny, yes, but it also very real.

It started when a retired George discovers he has a lesion on his hip and he is convinced he has cancer. With the dawning of his immortality, he tries to cope ... but is mind can't and he gradually unravels. He becomes irrational, he does irrational things. But he does it "politely," as the book jacket says.

Segue to Jean's humdrum existence as dutiful wife. Jean is in the process of a reawakening, a sexual one with an affair with George's former colleague. Jean has never looked or felt better in her whole life!

Tempestuous daughter Katie finally decided to tie the knot with ever-dependable Ray, who may be slightly boring but is a steady companion and more importantly loves Jacob, her son of previous marriage. Despite being in the thick of the preparations with Jean's heavy involvement, Katie questions her motivations for marrying. Does she love Ray, or is he an easy way out?

Very gay son, Jamie, has been out of the closet but has never had the nerve to tell is parents directly. But they know and that is all that Jamie can deal with at the moment. Jamie has been in a relationship with Tony for ages. With Katie's impending wedding, Jamie is in a bind to bring Tony along. He fears the disapproving stares of his parents and other family members.

But the plot thickens. Unbeknownst to Jean, George stumbles upon Jean making love with her lover, in their marriage bed nonetheless. George has a breakdown and he tries and cut away the "cancer"growing on his hip, losing so much blood that it seems like he tried to kill himself.

Jean worries herself silly. Katie's wedding is cancelled. Jamie and Tony break up. George opens up to Jamie on why he got himself in the hospital. Jean wants to continue seeing her lover but guilt is kicking in. Oh, and surprise, surprise, Jean learns that Katie knew about the affair all the time? Jamie and Ray actually have more in common than they think. Oh, wait, the wedding is back on again.

Everything happens in staccato.

The wedding finally rolls around. Does George finally go round the bend? Is the wedding really going to push through? Will Tony and Jamie reunite? Hang on, is that Jean's lover at the wedding?

(pause)

At first, I was going to sum up the Hall family as dysfunctional. Now I beg otherwise. This is what families are. I can relate to the politeness and the putting of a show; we all want to come across as put together. But reality is that very few families are "perfect" as we construe it based on idealized TV and movies (Six Feet Under not included).

What I loved is the conversations and "non-conversations". The polite conversations where you need to read between the lines. The conversations which reveal who people really are. The uncomfortable, pained and often disconcerting interactions between these family members which eventually drew them together once again.

First line: It began when George was trying on a black suit in Allders the week before Bob Green's funeral.

Last line: He turned the page and stood up to find the corkscrew.

Verdict: I loved this book. Thinking about family members: we love them, we hate them, we can't live without them. A family is a funny thing, isn't it? Especially if it's yours.

There'd been a moment, in Petersborough, shortly after Katie punched him, when he realized that he needed these people. Katie, Mum, Dad, Jacob. But they'd been with him all the way. They were part of him. (p. 230)

4 comments

  1. Interesting that you had to stop and think of whether to describe them as 'dysfunctional', because I also had a quick moment to think about that. And I actually agree with you, because that's what families are. I just went one step further and said to myself, well, what family isn't somewhat dysfunctional? =p

    Glad you mentioned that you loved The Curious Incident as well, because I'm probably going to read that some time soon. =)

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  2. Hey Michelle, true, so true! Hope you enjoy Curious Incident! I read it first and decided to read more Haddon!

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  3. just dropping by and scanning if i'll still pursue reading haddon's spot of bother.

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  4. aloysius, go for it ... i'll come over and have a peep at your review!

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall