Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Spot of Bother

A spot of bother
A Spot of Bother
Mark Haddon 

"At fifty-seven, George is settling down to a comfortable retirement, building a shed in his garden, reading historical novels, listening to a bit of light jazz. Then Katie, his tempestuous daughter, announces that she is getting remarried, to Ray. Her family is not pleased - as her brother Jamie observes, Ray has 'strangler's hands'. Katie can't decide if she loves Ray, or loves the way he cares for her son Jacob, and her mother Jean is a bit put out by the way the wedding planning gets in the way of her affair with one of her husband's former colleagues. And the tidy and pleasant life Jamie has created crumbles when he fails to invite his lover, Tony, to the dreaded nuptials.
Unnoticed in the uproar, George discovers a sinister lesion on his hip, and quietly begins to lose his mind."

   Following Notes on a scandal, this was the second of two books I picked up in a charity shop lucky dip. Books wrapped in brown paper with a small price tag and a few choice phrases about the plot to whet the appetite.
   Wrapped in a package bearing the inscription “FICTION – Solitary life interrupted – Love – Family Feud/Drama” I’d no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to uncover Mark Haddon’s second novel. This would be good. I’d absolutely loved his first book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and wanted to read more of his work. This would be great. Right?
   Then I started reading and pretty quickly that image came crashing down around me as this book turned out to be…well….mixed…

   First the positives, the story is pretty decent. The interweaving lives of four family members leading up to the date of the second wedding of Katie to fiancé Ray. The other members in the family include Katie’s brother Jamie, tasked with keeping the family together while his own relationship with boyfriend Tony falls apart, Jean, the mother of the family, currently having an affair with an ex-colleague of her husband and main character George, who, over the course of the novel slowly loses his mind as he begins to believe he has cancer and starts to worry obsessively about death.

   All four characters are enjoyable and I liked the way the story wove seamlessly between them, giving quick snippets of each characters activity and mental state before jumping quickly to the next one in line.
   This was boosted by Haddon’s writing style which is light and conversational. He makes frequent use of colloquialisms and allows the writing to drift off on random tangents in much the same way the mind does in real life. Characters are constantly having flashbacks to events in their lives which are glanced over in a sentence or two without much consequence. George will be pottering about in the garden and randomly think back to a barbeque five years ago where some humorous incident occurred, then, just as quickly as it began, it’s over, back to the story at hand, the tangential wanderings of the human mind.
   It’s a technique and writing style that may not appeal to everyone, but to me, it helped ground the story in real life. It felt true to life and worked well.

   Now to the negatives. The book is just too damn long. At over five hundred pages it’s twice the length it should be and, while each character is enjoyable to read, not enough happens to any of them to justify the size of the book. Their arcs are far too small, that is, if you can even call them arcs at all as pretty much every character ends back exactly where they started by the end.
   As I was reading I got to page two hundred and stopped. I was confused. The book was over. Each character’s story seemed to be heading toward the end goal, yet there were still three hundred pages left. I’d no idea what to expect, wondering if perhaps Haddon had some huge twist up his sleeve that would soon show itself. But no, the story simply potters on, the situations for the characters growing more difficult and awkward, yes, but only marginally so, in the tiniest of increments.
   The result is a story which feels like it should be quick and light but which in practice, drags on to the point where the reader will be in danger of giving up.

Mark Haddon   Had this been given a massive trim it could have been a great little book. The perfect read for a holiday by the pool or a rainy Sunday on the sofa. Instead it’s over long and seems to think the exposé of mental illness the story offers is much more impressive and hard hitting than it actually is.
   I’ve honestly no idea who the target market is for this book and I doubt the author does either. It’s a very confused title, by no means bad, but very weak and it’s disappointing to see an author who so completely knocked it out the park with his first novel, drop the ball so awkwardly with his follow-up.

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