A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Just try to be civil to a Man Booker judge

Rebecca Pearson
Sunday 03 September 2006 00:00
Comments

You're a BAFTA winner and the author of 15 children's books. Your last novel was awarded more than 15 literary awards, including the Whitbread Book of the Year prize. Where do you go from here? If you're Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, you write about a family of four. Living in Peterborough. It opens in a changing room in Allders, and it doesn't really get much more rock 'n' roll than that. But, by goodness, A Spot of Bother is nothing short of brilliant.

George Hall is a retired 57-year-old whose wife Jean is having an affair. His son, Jamie, is gay, much to George and Jean's discomfort, and his daughter, Katie, is about to marry Ray, a man they most certainly do not approve of. Then George discovers a strange lump on his hip, which, he becomes convinced, means terminal cancer. So he works himself up without telling anyone of his fears until he decides to take drastic action. I can't say more about the plot without ruining the many wonderful episodes and shocking surprises that pop up along the way.

Just as he flawlessly mastered the voice of a boy with Asperger's in The Curious Incident, here Haddon has filled 390 pages with sharp and witty observations about family and daily life. "He had never liked expensive hotels. On account of the tipping... Who did you tip... and how much? Rich people either knew instinctively or didn't give a damn if they offended the lower orders." The awkwardness surrounding the wedding is rich comic territory for Haddon, especially when Jamie pays Katie a visit and meets Ray instead:

" 'You heard the news, then.'

'I did.' Jamie nodded. 'Congratulations.'

Congratulations?

Ray extended a beefy paw and Jamie found his own hand sucked into its gravitational field."

One recurring theme in the novel is the idea that when people try so hard to keep others happy, it can be at the expense of their own feelings. Haddon handles the undercurrents, gripes and accommodations of family life with aplomb, using everyday phrases subtly and effectively, as when it's announced that Katie is bringing Ray for lunch: "Bloody hell. That was all he needed. Jean bent into the fridge. 'Just try to be civil.'"

They are clearly very reserved parents, for whom appearance is all-important: "What was Katie doing? You could not control children, he knew that. Making them eat vegetables was hard enough." Even when Haddon pulls off one of the most gruesome scenes I've ever read (forget Palahniuk's Haunted, that's soooo last year), it is somehow completely believable.

This a superb novel, and I was shocked when it didn't made the Man Booker longlist. There may be a perfectly obvious, simple reason for its omission. After reading it though, I can't think of an explanation that's good enough.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in