If the success of exported films and sitcoms is any indication, people find the lives of middle-class Britons – even, or maybe especially, the unremarkable ones – to be highly entertaining. It is upon this lucrative territory that Mark Haddon treads for his second novel, A Spot of Bother. Readers no doubt remember 2003’s nicely done The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time favorably, but, as Haddon’s sophomore release doesn’t seem to be narrated from inside the head of an autistic savant, they’ll also spend much of the story wondering what he’s got up his sleeve. The answer, it turns out, is not much – the book is nearly devoid of tricks and gimmickry. What we have here is a large-cast family drama with highlights of other-side-of-the-Atlantic humor, in which Haddon’s often impressive style provides the sole bulwark between the reader and some sort of Hugh Grant novelization.
The novel centers on the Hall family’s trials and tribulations. Not only is father George beginning to drift into the type of post-productivity retirement anxiety that makes the younger generation happy to inherit a world without pensions, he’s convinced he’s been stricken by melanoma misdiagnosed as eczema. Mother Jean, driven in part by George’s idle inattention, has found herself involved with her husband’s former co-worker. Against almost everybody’s wishes, daughter Katie is about to marry a man who is, unlike the one she divorced, insufficiently refined. Son Jamie stands on the brink of desperate inner anguish over whether or not to bring his equally working-class boyfriend to the wedding.
With this bunch, what you see is what you get. The Halls do not harbor an unspeakable past, nor do they display the paralyzing neuroses and pulsating emotional scars currently in literary fashion. It’s actually something of a relief. They’re just relatives dealing with their own crises, all of which boil over or come to a resolution – or both – during Katie’s wedding. It isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that the wedding indeed happens and the individual issues are indeed resolved, as the story grinds through equivocation, but never real doubt.
The one aspect of the book that might be called unusual is George’s mental state. The third-person narration follows a different family member in each and every one of the 144 short chapters (a wise pacing choice), and whenever the patriarch is spotlighted, his increasingly erratic motivations are described as reasonably as possible. When the text follows, say, Jamie, the mere idea of his father attempting amateur surgery in the bathtub with mum’s good scissors is bizarre – when George decides to go through with it, however, his rationale reads as very nearly credible. Some will see this as shades of Curious Incident, 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 – keeping track of his impulses and their consequences becomes tiresome about halfway in.
In fact, the novel as a whole loses momentum around that point. During the first 150 pages, Haddon’s succinct technique – the many characters go almost entirely without physical description, for instance – keeps the pages turning rapidly and enjoyably, but then the narrative engine coughs, sputters and generates more heat than motion. Those seeking a big payoff or vertiginous twist won’t get what they’re looking for, and they’ll still have to work hard to keep all of the names straight. However, there’s also a certain subtle affability to the proceedings, a hint of that quintessentially English fatalism that endears so many to the country.
None of A Spot of Bother’s problems render it unreadable. The pleasure of the first sixty or so chapters isn’t sustained throughout, but if the theme of the redemptive nature of familial bonds is enough to carry one through, perhaps it doesn’t 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 is better than most. Like the Halls themselves, perhaps it’s best to settle down, pour some tea and take the good with the bad when it comes to this novel.