A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon

George, a man of 57 who's just retired, discovers a patch on his skin and becomes convinced it's cancerous. He becomes obsessed with the idea of his own mortality, and struggles to remain normal in the face of his fear as the occasion of his daughter's second marriage looms.

After reading, and being very impressed with The Curious Incident.., I was prepared for this book to be a bit of a let-down: I'd expected that Haddon might be a one-trick pony, and that this book would be either rubbish or just some kind of re-hash of the first. But, curse him, it's a really good read, and not at all derivative of the first novel.

The book is written in very short chapters (about 140 altogether), mainly told from the point of view of different characters (George, his wife, their kids). I'm not sure if it's intentional, but for most of the chapters, the first word is the name of the character whose PoV is being tracked, so you know immediately where you are.

At the start of the book I found it a bit hard to work out who was who, as names were thrown in with no background explanation being given, but you soon pick it up. In fact there are a number of places in the book where allusions are made to events in the family's history, e.g. when George's wife is thinking about their daughter:

Spilling that paint over the cat. Losing her passport in Malta. (p233)
that's the way you talk about things in families: you don't need to explain the whole story; just a shorthand description is enough.

Throughout the book, George's obsession becomes more disruptive, and - so far as I could see - is plausibly described. There's quite a convincing section where he injures himself and passes out: the description of the thoughts going through his mind reminded me a bit of the senile aunt in Casting Off. But as well as George's problems, the book follows the travails of his family members, who all have issues of their own to deal with.

There were quite a few bits I highlighted:

George's son Jamie is a homosexual with tendencies to depression and over-eating. When he gets dumped:

He hurt too much. And there was something sickly and comforting about the thought of going back to the house alone, smashing the tulips from the table, then retiring to the sofa to drink the bottle of wine on his own. (p119)
and then when he tries to think of what he should say to his ex:
What was Jamie going to say? It seemed so obvious what he felt. But when he tried to put it into words it sounded clumsy or unconvincing and sentimental. If only you could lift a lid on the top of your head and say, 'Look.' (p338)
or what to write to him:
It was so bloody difficult because he couldn't say it to Tony's face. You said something to someone's face, saw how they reacted and adjusted the steering wheel a bit. (p358)
George, trying to answer an uncomfortable question put to him by his wife:
When men had problems they wanted someone to give them an answer, but when women had problems they wanted you to say that you understood. (p336)
And it occurred to him that there were two parts to being a better person. One part was thinking about other people. The other part was not giving a toss about what other people thought. (p406)

Some of those make it sound like it might be a sad book: well there is sadness there, and I was quite moved. But it was very funny as well, laugh-out-loud in places. I was reading some of this in a cafe and there were some bits where I wanted to put it down and announce to people "you really should read this book".

The one criticism I'd have is that the ending was a bit too neat and happy. I'd prefer it to have been more tragic. But that aside, it was a very enjoyable read, and all too quickly finished.

Re-read in 2015. Enjoyed it again and laughed quite a lot.

Completed : 26-Jul-2008

Completed : 01-Feb-2015

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