A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
Though not nearly as tour-de-force-y as his remarkable debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother is nonetheless a reasonably brilliant and mostly engaging observational novel that takes us deep into the at-times seriously deranged psyches of the Hall family. Set in what seems to be the suburbs of present-day London, here is the story of:
• George Hall, deeply uncomfortable with the world, the patriarchal retiree who'd sooner putter alone in his garden than interact with people (including—especially?—his family), and who falls into a slow but quite complete mental breakdown (all very politely, of course) after discovering what he believes to be a cancerous legion on his leg.
• Jean Hall, George's slightly clueless (though usually well-meaning) wife who can't help but say the wrong thing... and who's in the midst of an utterly surprising affair with one of her husband's former colleagues.
• Jamie Hall, their amiable, somewhat befuddled gay son (George and Jean have NO idea how to deal with that) who, fearing love, throws away his boyfriend Tony, only to realize (too late?) that he just blew the best part of his life.
• Katie Hall, the caustic daughter with young son Jacob, whose impending, on-again-off-again wedding to the dull but capable and loving Ray provides much of the book's narrative structure.
Haddon is an entertaining, confident, intelligent writer who knows how to paint a character or a scene with just a few quick strokes. And though I felt like the book's middle got a bit saggy, there are so many juicy little observations AND big, heart-wrenching moments that I know that these very human Halls, with all of their flaws and good intentions, will stay with me for some time to come.
Here's a sample of Haddon's voice, chosen almost randomly:
"He decided not to mention [his public panic attack] to Jean. She would only want to talk about it and that was not an appealing proposition.
Talking was, in George's opinion, overrated. You could not turn the television on these days without someone discussing their adoption or explaining why they stabbed their husband. Not that he was averse to talking. Talking was one of life's pleasures. And everyone needed to sound off now and then over a pint of Ruddles about colleagues who did not shower frequently enough, or teenage sons who had returned home drunk in the small hours and thrown up in the dog's basket. But it did not change anything.
The secrecy of contentment, George felt, lay in ignoring many things completely. How anyone could work in the same office for ten years or bring up children without putting certain thoughts permanently to the back of their mind was beyond him. And as for that last grim lap when you had a catheter and no teeth, memory loss seemed like a godsend."