I loved Mark Haddon’s a spot of bother. I couldn’t stop reading once I’d started. I don’t have the stamina that I once had for reading late into the night, but I stayed up till 3 am to finish this one, no doubt much to the detriment of my performance at work the following day.
The novel is the story of 61-year-old George Hall. The characteristically understated “spot of bother” of the title is George’s descent into madness after he discovers a lesion on his hip which he believes to be terminal skin cancer.
Prior to this incident, George served as the quiet, steady centre of his rather volatile family, so it’s not surprising that it takes some time for anyone to notice that something is very wrong. His wife Jean is having an affair and finding that assignations with her lover are much more difficult to arrange now that the recently retired George is at home all day. His daughter Katie, still bitter over the failure of her first marriage, is planning a second, to her boyfriend Ray of whom no one in the family apart from her small son Jacob approves. George’s son Jamie, conservative and gay, may well have found the love of his life, but he balks at the prospect of parading his boyfriend before friends and family as his date to Katie’s wedding.
Though the novel is primarily George’s story, the perspective shifts at various points so that the reader gets inside the heads of Jean, Katie, and Jamie as well. The characters are frequently at odds with one another, and it’s a testament to Haddon’s skill that the reader's allegiance tends to shift along with the perspective.
An impending wedding that brings family tensions to the surface is a very conventional plot device. But a spot of bother is not a conventional novel. It manages to be at once uproariously funny and highly disturbing. It doesn’t gloss over any of the distressing details of George’s deteriorating mental state. Yet in the end the novel is somehow affirming in its depiction of life and family relationships in all their visceral messiness.