A Spot of Bother

By Mark Haddon. Published in 2006.

In his acclaimed debut novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon convincingly describes the interior monologue of an autistic boy. In A Spot of Bother, his subject seems more modest—four ordinary people—but perhaps that appearance is deceptive. After all, the vast majority of readers don’t know how it feels to be autistic, but they do know how it feels to clash with a parent or child or sibling or romantic partner, so they’re more likely to notice if the interior monologues in Bother seem off.

To my ear, A Spot of Bother did occasionally ring false—a bit too clean, a bit too pat—but the novel’s quiet, unassuming gentleness kept me absorbed nonetheless.

A Spot of Bother covers a few difficult weeks in the lives of George and Jean Hall and their adult children, Katie, a divorcée with a young son, and Jamie, a gay man with a steady boyfriend. Katie has just agreed to marry Ray, a working-class engineer of whom no one in the family approves and with whom she isn’t certain she’s in love. Jean is not only uncomfortable with her daughter’s impending nuptials but also with her own marriage, as she’s been carrying on an affair for months. Jamie is out of the closet but completely panicked by the idea of his boyfriend attending the wedding and meeting his family. And in the midst of all the wedding-related angst, George discovers a lesion on his hip and concludes he is dying of cancer.

Maybe it’s because the Halls are quintessentially British (stiff upper lip and all that), or maybe it’s because my own extended family is insanely indiscreet, but I spent much of A Spot of Bother completely exasperated with George and Jean and Katie and Jamie. Couldn’t these people just talk to one another? It would spare them so much of this needless—yet ever so prim and proper—familial drama.

By the time the Halls did begin to resolve things, I found questioning the likelihood of such outcomes. Were such resolutions and revelations possible for people so repressed and disconnected from their own emotions and wishes? I liked them (in spite of my judgmental self) and wanted them to be happy, but I wasn’t sure I saw much more than estrangement in their future.

Yet even if Haddon’s plot arc doesn’t always feel quite right, his individual details almost invariable do. In a strange way, A Spot of Bother is the inverse of a pointillistic painting: up close, the novel’s dots are perfect, even if the broader image seems off-kilter. The books the characters read, the way they decorate their houses, what they eat when they’re upset, the manner in which Katie’s young son interacts with adults, the awkward conversations between people who don’t want to acknowledge their dislike of each other—all the little details of the book feel spot-on.

Those details humanize the characters—they make them real—so the story works, even when a plot turn feels unlikely or melodramatic. And to be fair, some of the melodrama is great fun. A wedding fiasco can be highly entertaining if it’s not your wedding.