by the success of exported films and sitcoms, people worldwide find the
lives of middle-class Britons -- even, or maybe especially, the
unremarkable ones -- highly entertaining. It is upon this lucrative
territory that Mark Haddon treads for his second novel, A Spot of Bother. Many readers will fondly recall 2003’s nicely done The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,
but as Haddon’s sophomore release is not, for one, set inside the head
of an autistic savant, they’ll also spend more than a few chapters
imagining what’s up the author’s sleeve. The answer, it turns out, is
nothing much: the book is nearly devoid of gimmickry. What we have here
is a large-cast family drama highlighted with
other-side-of-the-Atlantic humor. Haddon’s style, nearly always
disciplined and often impressive, stands alone between the reader and
some sort of Hugh Grant film novelization.
It’s a tumultuous time for the family Hall. Not only has father George begun to drift into the kind of post-productivity retirement anxiety that brightens the younger generations’ outlook on a future without pensions, he’s convinced that melanoma, misdiagnosed as eczema, has stricken him. Motivated in part by George’s idle inattention, mother Jean finds herself involved with her husband’s former co-worker. Against almost everyone’s wishes, daughter Katie prepares to marry a man of -- unlike the one she divorced --insufficient refinement. Ever more anguished son Jamie grapples with the question of bringing his equally working-class boyfriend to the wedding.
With this bunch, what you see is what you get. The Halls do not harbor unspeakable secrets, nor are they gripped by paralyzing neuroses or covered with the pulsating emotional scars currently in literary fashion. Truth be told, it’s something of a relief. They’re all relatives simply dealing with their own crises, all of which boil over, come to a resolution or both during the course of Katie’s wedding. It isn’t much of a spoiler to divulge that the wedding indeed happens and individual issues are indeed resolved; the story grinds through some equivocation, but never real doubt.
George’s mental state constitutes the single aspect of the book that might be called unusual. Third-person narration follows a different family member in each of 144 short chapters – an effective pacing choice -- and whenever the patriarch is under the spotlight, his increasingly erratic motivations are described as coolly and reasonably as possible. When the text follows, for instance, Jamie, the very notion of his father attempting amateur surgery in the bathtub with mum’s good scissors sounds bizarre; when George decides to go through with it, his rationale reads as just about credible. Shades of Curious Incident, some may say, but it’s less of a coherent, all-encompassing condition than young Christopher Boone’s autism. At its peak, George’s confusion is the reader’s confusion; halfway in, keeping track of his impulses and their consequences tires.
The novel as a whole loses momentum around the same point. Over the first 150 pages, Haddon’s succinct technique -- the many characters go almost entirely without physical description, for instance -- keeps pages turning rapidly and enjoyably. Then, the narrative engine coughs and sputters, generating more heat than motion. Those seeking a big payoff or vertiginous twist won’t get what they want, and they’ll still have to work hard to keep all the names straight. There is, however, a certain subtle affability to the proceedings, a hint of that quirkily English fatalism that endears so many to the country and its people.
None of A Spot of Bother’s problems render it unreadable. (As for the straight-to-the-point depiction of George’s auto-operation, your mileage may vary.) The pleasure of the first sixty or so chapters isn’t sustained, and perhaps isn’t sustainable, but if the theme of familial bonds’ redemptive quality is enough to carry one through, perhaps that doesn’t much matter. So what if it lacks the impact of Curious Incident, or if it isn’t particularly groundbreaking? A sizable portion of the book is well-executed, and its ratio of trenchant observations per page exceeds that of most novels of the genre. Like the Halls themselves do, it may be best to settle down, pour some tea and take the good with the bad.