“The human mind was not designed for sunbathing and light novels,” observes George Hall, the main protagonist in Mark Haddon’s second novel, A Spot of Bother. It’s the kind of meta sentence that reviewers jump on; both Janet Maslin and David Kamp quoted it in the New York Times, as did Carlo Wolff in the Chicago Sun-Times.
And so it begs the question: What kind of novel is A Spot of Bother? Most glaring is what it’s not. At first glance, it doesn’t bear any resemblance to Haddon’s bold debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a short, crisp mystery told through the memorable voice of Christopher Boone (imagine Hemingway-spare filtered through an autistic 15-year-old boy).
Haddon’s follow-up at first seems like the stuff of most typical family dramas (a possible illness, an affair, a break-up, marriage anxieties) anchored by—and amplifying—George’s spiraling madness. Passages also bring to mind scenes from other novels and films. When George takes comfort in routine kitchen tasks, another British patriarch, Henry Perowne in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, self-satisfied in the minutiae of his own kitchen duties, comes to mind. As George leaves his doctor’s office, feeling momentarily triumphant after being told he doesn’t have cancer, the image that’s evoked is of Mickey Sachs, Woody Allen’s hypochondriacal character in Hannah and Her Sisters, gleefully exiting Mount Sinai Hospital after discovering he doesn’t have a brain tumor.
But Haddon is much too smart and original of a writer to push out a trite—or even a light—novel. As each character’s fumbles and foibles weave around each others’, it becomes clear that Haddon’s strength with his new book is in the telling, spot on, detail. If The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, with its equations, charts and diagrams, revels in pushing the ways in which a novel’s boundaries can stretch, then A Spot of Bother‘s charm lies in the generosity in which it fills a novel’s traditional boundaries, both in terms of form and subject matter.
Haddon doesn’t waste any time in setting the book’s premise from the get go. The opening sentence: “It began when George was trying on a black suit in Allders the week before Bob Green’s funeral.” A 61-year-old recent retiree, George notices a lesion on his hip that he imagines is a cancerous tumor. And since George is a “decent man,” one who, when a monkey wrench dropped on his feet “just closed his eyes, straightened his back and concentrated, like he was trying to hear someone calling from a very long way away,” he tries initially to keep his dwindling sanity to himself. He showers in the dark (to avoid seeing the lesion), takes long walks, works on building his studio, even takes up sketching. After seeing a documentary on TV about a man dying from abdominal cancer, George “rock[ed] back and forth and resigned himself to keeping the mooing at as low a volume as possible.”
But as the rest of the family’s dramas come to light—most significantly when George discovers his wife, Jean, carrying on an affair with his former coworker—his madness amplifies. Haddon’s writing, as well, seems to crescendo along, with descriptions delivered in a tight flurry:
He was dying. And no one knew. His wife was having sex with another man. And he had to give a speech at his daughter’s wedding. He was clinging to the bottom rung of the heated towel rail, like a man trying not to be swept away by a flood.
Haddon’s portraits of Jean and the Hall’s grown-up children, Katie and Jamie—depicted in short, alternating chapters—are just as vivid, and perhaps even more honest in their emotional depth. Instead of merely capturing his characters, Haddon digs into them, revealing secrets, painful realizations, and deep longings. Jean remembers being jealous of her daughter’s first husband. “Their being friends. Their being equals,” she recalls. Katie, while watching her two-year-old son sleep and not wanting to let him go, acknowledges, “This was how [her fiancé] was meant to make her feel.” And after his relationship ends, one of the things Jamie misses most is “the way your body relaxed” when being held.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, noted for its deep empathy, is a hard act to follow. But A Spot of Bother holds up just fine. Haddon shows that despite being told countless times in other forms, what the most mundane of family dramas was missing was his empathetic voice.
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