Acanine murder mystery from the point of view of an autistic boy (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 2003) got Mark Haddon, a children’s author and illustrator till then, fame and the Whitbread, Britain’s most prestigious literary prize. After reading his second novel, A Spot of Bother, it’s tempting to assume that it also got him the kind of performance anxiety unique to writers or film-makers after they’ve arrived with brilliant debuts.
The gritty originality of The Curious Incident… has been watered down. The single, intense point of view that gave that book its gravitas has been replaced by too many points of view, and not all gripping enough.
Haddon retains his gift for going into the inner world of his characters, but that doesn’t add up to a vision or a finale that stays with you long after you’ve finished the last page.
Things start well. George Hall, having just retired in Peterborough, UK, is out buying a suit when he discovers a lesion on his hip. He is falsely convinced that he has cancer and is bent on killing himself before having to die a painful death. Each member of the Hall family is going though his or her own crisis— communication has snapped completely and nobody knows what’s going on in one another’s lives.
George’s wife, Jean, is having an affair with his close associate, David. Their daughter, Katie, has just announced her wedding to Ray, of whom everyone in the family, including Katie herself, disapproves. The son, Jamie, decides against inviting his boyfriend, Tony, to the wedding, because of which Tony is hurt and offended and decides to walk out of a relationship that’s already on the rocks.
The climax, of course, takes place at the wedding, in the family backyard.
Haddon’s brand of black humour and irony is abundant in this book, too. And so is his feeling for human trappings and foibles. He alternates between his own musings on middle-class suburban life and the grisly minutiae of a dysfunctional family.
Some of the good parts that really make you feel for the characters are not in the words that they speak but in Haddon’s own: “Maybe George was fooling himself. Maybe old people always fooled themselves, pretending that the world was going to hell in a handcart because it was easier than admitting they were being left behind…” Or, “Talking was, in George’s opinion, overrated… The secret of contentment, George felt, lay in ignoring many things completely.”
Is it a disastrous climax? Does George realize that his obsession with death is just a reflection of his mental state? Does love win at last?
The end, after a breezy and, at times, seriously boring read, is happy. Even in the happiness, you expect some surprise at the end—but it never comes.
The book’s merit finally rests just on its good humour and funny situations. It’s interesting that the seemingly normal George has a nervous breakdown, but the book never gives the readers the impression that he is in any real danger, even when he deliberately causes an accident and lies bleeding.
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