When I saw this book on the shelf of a used bookstore out in Alexandria last weekend, I knew instantly I had to have it. Several years ago I read and loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but for some reason never looked into other books by Haddon. I couldn’t wait to dive into this newest novel. (Okay, it was published in 2006, but it is new to me since I had no idea it existed!) I was expecting something similar to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but found A Spot of Bother to stand entirely on its own.
George Hall, our protagonist, is just settling into retirement when he finds a spot of dry, diseased feeling skin on his hip. He immediately decides he has skin cancer and goes into a downward spiral, filled with panic attacks and self-destructive behavior. The fact that his family seems to be coming apart at the seams only adds to his stress, which increase the panic attacks. His daughter announces her marriage to a man that her parents don’t particularly care for and one that, while she appreciates him, she isn’t sure she loves. Their son’s boyfriend leaves him, saying he doesn’t know how to be in a real relationship. If that wasn’t enough drama, George’s wife has been sleeping with one of his former colleagues. All of this drops into George’s lap as he thinks he has discovered he is dying.
As the wedding draws nearer, George’s depression spirals out of control. He is convinced he is dying, that his wife doesn’t love him and that he has made a mess of his entire life. The at-home surgery, self-medicating through codeine and alcohol and then abundant use of doctor prescribed Valium aren’t helping things.
I felt guilty laughing while George’s life seems to unravel, but Haddon’s telling of the tale weaves such a dark comedy that I couldn’t help but chuckle at times. At one point, on the day of Katie’s wedding, George takes off in an attempt to not have to be involved in the nuptials. He is found hiding in a ditch (he makes the excuse that he went for a walk, tripped and turned an ankle) and must return home. On his way home he remembers he has a stash of Valium that should get him through the day. With this thought being the only one in mind, he takes off at a full sprint back to the house, startling those who were watching him limp along the road just seconds before. As the family is in full-panic mode, thinking they’ve lost George, he goes zipping by the kitchen window at mach5 speed. The imagine of this slightly paunchy, bedraggled man flying by the kitchen window on the morning of a wedding just makes me laugh each time I imagine it. With writing like that, George’s predicament seems a little less serious and allows the reader to see the absurd and ridiculous side of even the most trying events.
The hardest part of this book for me was its British-ness. There were a few times I had to stop and look up what a word or phrase meant. When George goes to the surgery to see his doctor, I had to keep reminding myself that it was the hospital, not an operation that he was going in for. And, boy oh boy, was there a lot of tea drinking. Regardless of the situation, good or bad, tea was always the first thing offered. (Which I would think was far-fetched, but know from first-hand experience that tea really is a go-to for the British. After making a rather speedy exit from my apartment building during the Sichuan earthquake, I was sitting on the ground with a British teacher, with the earth still moving below us. As we watched landslides on the surrounding hills, she looked at me and said, “I could really go for a cup of tea right about now!”)
While this book was not at all what I expected, it was still enjoyable. I liked the dark comedy and the way the reader gets to peer into the lives of a family that looks “normal” on the outside, but in reality is scrambling to hold everything together. Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother earns: