I enjoyed listening to Mark Haddon’s novel A Spot of Bother; I don’t think it’s quite as good as his first novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but it’s a good book nonetheless. The charm and interest of the first novel was in the narrative voice; the main character is autistic, and it was fascinating and sometimes funny, sometimes heart-breaking to see the world from his perspective. The tension between the way the narrator views the world and the way the reader can see the limits of his point of view keeps readers hooked.
A Spot of Bother is more traditional in its theme and style than the first one. It’s about a family that is falling apart, beginning with the father, George, who finds an ominous-looking spot on his hip and is convinced it is cancer. When he visits the doctor and hears it is excema, he does not believe it. He is convinced he is dying and falls into a depression that wreaks havoc on himself and his family. All the other members of his family are suffering too: his wife is having an affair and can’t decide what to do about it; his son, Jamie, is in danger of losing his lover; and his daughter, Katie, can’t decide if she wants to marry Ray, the man no one else in the family likes.
If all that sounds serious and heavy, it’s not — Haddon tells the story in a light, comic way. While you feel bad for George, you can’t help but laugh at his crazy leaps of logic and his dry sense of humor, and the interaction amongst all the characters reveals just how amusing family conflict can be — seen from the outside, of course.
The novel has a fairly traditional comedic structure: it’s about life falling apart and getting put back together again, and its plot revolves around weddings and marriages: will Katie and Ray get married? Will George and Jean stay together? Tragedy threatens — especially in the way George confronts the prospect of his inevitable death — but it never looms very large. It’s not terribly hard to figure out how the plot will resolve itself or what the novel’s climax will involve (even for me, who can never figure out plots), but the pleasure of this book is not in its plot twists, but in the dialogue and the records of the characters’ thoughts. The point of view shifts back and forth amongst the members of the family, revealing exactly what each person thinks of the other, a technique that lends itself well to comedy — no one knows exactly what the other characters know or what they think about everyone else, and the effort to guess or discover this truth leads to some amusing mistakes. It’s a story about the difficulty — and the urgency — of discovering the truth about the people one lives with and loves.
I can very easily see how this novel could be turned into a movie — in fact, if it’s not turned into a movie, I’ll be surprised. I feel ambivalently about this; on the one hand, it’s a movie I’d almost certainly enjoy, provided it were decently well-made. On the other hand, this characteristic reveals a certain predictability and formula-following that I usually shy away from. But I don’t want to look down my nose at an entertaining story that’s well told, so I won’t … instead I’ll recommend this book for a time when you need a laugh and some high-quality entertainment.