2006_09_arts_krissareview.jpgI consider myself a pretty seasoned reader. I can find things amusing, or witty, or well-written, and basically keep it to myself until I’m ready to review the book.

But much to my husband’s chagrin, Mark Haddon has bested me. While reading most his second novel, A Spot of Bother, in one sitting, I couldn’t stop myself from laughing at every other page, and having laughed, I couldn’t stop myself from reading aloud all the funniest parts to the poor guy (who despairingly reminded me that at some point, he might like to read it, too).

Haddon’s comic timing took me completely by surprise. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, an erstwhile murder mystery with an autistic narrator trying to solve both the murder of a poodle and the dissolution of his parent’s marriage, didn’t exactly make me guffaw. And, when comparing the novels, A Spot of Bother is equally concerned with the mysteries and intricacies of family complexities. So what explains Haddon’s suddenly sharp funny bone?

A Spot of Bother opens with exactly that – recently retired George Hall is trying on suits for a colleague’s funeral when he notices a slight rash on his hip. From there, the 61-year-old married father of two spirals slowly and inexorably into polite madness. George is convinced the rash is cancer. Jean, his wife, is carrying on a surprisingly passionate affair with David Symmonds, George’s former co-worker. Their son Jamie is trying to figure out if he loves his boyfriend, Tony, and if he does love him, is he ready to debut him in suburban south England? And their daughter Katie might be marrying the working-class Ray simply because he’s good to her and her son Jacob. Each of these problems might be easily solved if anyone in the Hall family, genetically endowed with that famously stiff British upper lip, could stop their own tiny dramas for moment and listen to each other.

Haddon slides us often quickly from perspective to perspective, and as the days count down to the wedding that no one but Ray seems completely comfortable going ahead with, everyone continues to quietly unravel in four corners of the same room, metaphorically speaking. Normally, switching perspective so abruptly might hinder the story, but Haddon pulls it off with flair. Most well-executed is George’s fumbling grip on sanity – what looks like crazy from Jean’s distracted perspective or Katie’s bitter one actually looks like a game plan for survival when Haddon takes us into George’s mind. His madness is well-organized and thought-out:

Thinking of something else [than the cancer] was the most difficult task on the list. […] When he was in town it was possible to distract himself by glancing sideways at an attractive young lady and imagining her naked. […] If he had been more brazen and lived alone he might have purchased pornographic magazines. But he was not brazen and Jean was a scrupulous cleaner of nooks. So he settled for the crossword.

Another success of Haddon’s is the totality of your immersion in the Hall family. Other writers, when putting forth an entire complex family in a few hundred pages, will be tempted to lay the stories down as if the reader was a guest at Christmas dinner – with background and explanations and interruptions. But the Halls know everything about one another, intimately and without footnotes. Jean, in thinking about arranging her daughter’s wedding, reminisces, “laid-back was the term Katie used. Coming home from university with all of her clothes in black rubbish bags and leaving them in the open garage so the binmen took them away. Spilling that paint all over the cat. Losing her passport in Malta.”

The shorthand of the passage strikes the point home. Haddon wants you to feel close to and understand his lost, wandering family, but he never wants you to forget that they know each other better than you will. What cat? What paint? It doesn’t matter that you know, only that you realize that Jean knows. It’s subtle, and brilliant, and should be studied as a prerequisite for ever following in Tolstoy’s footprints and writing the great Unhappy Family novel.

Which, ultimately and almost in spite of all the inappropriate and perfectly-timed laughts, is what Haddon has done. It feels like a graduation from the slightly-detached sense of his first novel – perhaps it’s funny because like so many cliched but painful family sagas, it’s all very, very true.

Hardcover, 368 pages
Publication date: September 5, 2006