31 January, 2009

'A Spot of Bother' - Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon achieved a wide-reaching bestseller with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a book loved by book groups and literary types, and taken up by high schools for English studies. As in that earlier novel, Haddon again builds a story around observation. His main characters are a little less confrontational this time: rather than a teenager with Aspergers, the novel works through the buildup to a wedding from the point of view of the bride-to-be and her family. Each has their own issues; each finds themself in a potentially intractable situation through misjudged priorities. Her doubts about the nuptials increase as the date approaches; her mother is having an affair; her father incubates a growing insanity as mortality draws closer; and her brother must swap contentment for rejection as he dallies in his commitment to his boyfriend.

It is a book of pithy, warming observations, written in a style that sits somewhere between the wry humour of Nick Hornby and the hysterics of Jonathon Franzen. Such is the profusion of witty perceptions, that it would seem Haddon built a set of characters expressly to carry out the truisms he had already gleaned from surveilling society. The novel's 61-year-old patriarch, David, before cooking dinner for a former colleague who is, unbeknownst to him, sleeping with his wife, 'spent the day shopping and making risotto in the time-honoured male way, removing all the utensils from the drawers and laying them out like surgical instruments, then decanting all the ingredients into small bowls to maximise the washing up'.

About halfway through the book, David's son, Jamie, sums up the book's focus when he identifies the 'rootless ache he always felt in business hotels and spare rooms, the smallness of your life when you took the props away'. Each of the characters is separated from a touchstone and must reconnect by different means. Haddon parodies himself along with these representatives of his countrymen by titling this collection of life-changing events as 'a spot of bother'.

The novel has its own spots of bother: Haddon frequently brings in an aside to elaborate a character point, but often he steps too far, leaving paragraphs disjointed. His intent is normally practical rather than poetic - to flesh out a character and their relationships - and perhaps he's endeavouring in building these rounded characters to prove his own point that men 'put words together like sheds or shelves and you could stand on them they were so solid'.

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