Book Review Wednesday: Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

27 June 2007

I read Mark Haddon’s first book for adults (he has written many for children) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time a few years ago shortly after it came out.  It is a fascinating read; Haddon takes us through a pivotal, coming-of-age period in the life of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome.  The narrator sometimes is aware that he sees things or thinks of things differently than his readers, and sometimes not.  Haddon’s ability to evoke the life and experiences of a person living with Asperger’s is impressive.

Mark Haddon published his second book for adults late last year, A Spot of Bother.  This book also chronicles the time around a crucial life event: a wedding.  But this is no ordinary wedding (or maybe it is?): it is the bride’s second; the groom’s first; she has a child, Jacob; her brother is gay and not all that comfortable bringing his boyfriend, Tony, to the nuptials; the bride’s mother is having an affair with a former her husband’s former co-worker; and the cuckolded father is going insane, although he is trying to pull it off as politely and diplomatically as possible.

As much information as I’ve given about the novel, I’m not really giving much away.  Although the novel is ostensibly about George Hall, the bride’s father, it is really about the whole family.  The book’s 144 chapters shift in perspective between George, his wife Jean, Katie—the bride—, and Jamie, their gay son.  George’s madness, while never described technically or diagnosed definitively, seems to be a kind of bipolar disorder, wherein he swings from manic hypochondria to a morbid depression and back.  And although his mental illness is a major part of the conflict of the story, it is not the only problem this family faces: decision-making for the wedding, Katie’s relationship with Ray, her soon-to-be-husband, and Graham, her ex-, Jamie’s relationship with Tony and the strains that Jamie’s parents’ middle-class conservatism put on it, the challenges of raising a child with ultra-doting grandparents, among others.

At one point, the conflicts reach not so much a climax and more of a nadir, when the family and its various satellite members reach optimum dysfunction.  These chapters, due to Haddon’s simultaneously sympathetic and brutally honest writing, can be hard to get through; Haddon cultivates readers’ sympathy yet never shields them from the harsh reality of people who are loving and unloveable, giving and selfish.

Much as he did with his Asperger’s afflicted protagonist in The Curious Incident . . . , Haddon manages to evoke what a person experiencing the onset of serious mental illness goes through.  George Hall’s mental state is at times comical but often also disturbing, as he goes to great length to “cure” himself of his diseases, some real and some imagined.

As so much of this ‘blog’s content is religious, I must comment on Haddon’s critique of British Evangelicalism.  I am wholly unfamiliar with British Evangelical Christianity, but Haddon is clearly unsympathetic to it.  Three characters are clearly described as “Christians” and none of them are very likeable.  One, Ian, gives a Jamie a “Christian hug, which is not a real one.”  The Christian characters in the novel are those annoying, holier-than-thou converts that I associate with megachurches and the “happy-clappy” (a term one of Haddon’s characters uses) strains of Evangelicalism.  I am not sure if Haddon has antipathies towards Christianity as a whole or simply these kinds of contemporary religious expression, but in any event, I wouldn’t be that sympathetic to these particular Christian characters myself, as they seem to be rather judgmental and “loving-’cause-I-oughta-be” and not truly loving in a Christian sense.

A Spot of Bother is a tough read at times, but only because Haddon is so good at showing how perfectly, typically human his characters are.

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