A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon has been on the shelf for quite some time. His first book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, was such a distinctive and interesting book that as a reader you feel worried about how a writer would follow it up. This story follows the fortunes of George, Jean, Katie and Jamie (dad, mum and their two grown up children), while they all experience their own little spot of bother.
George is having trouble adjusting to retirement and finds himself sinking into depression when he discovers a patch on his skin he believes to be cancer. Jean, while getting out of the house and away from George, is having an affair about which she feels guilty. Katie is planning to get married to Ray, a man considered entirely unsuitable by the rest of the family, and she begins to wonder if she is just doing it to piss them off. Jamie is struggling with commitment issues and upsets his boyfriend by saying he doesn't want to take him to the wedding, and it's only after he's gone that Jamie realises how important the relationship was. It's all very genteel and middle class. People are polite and wary of saying what they really mean, even when they get annoyed at each other, and it is that which makes it both funny and annoying. The story is told in very short chapters that jump from the perspective of one character to another, sometimes relating the same incident from the alternate perspective, sometimes moving to a new incident. None of the spots of bother are particularly a catalyst for any of the others, even though the impending wedding seems to be the destination of the book. They think of themselves as a close family but there are things that they don't talk about or share. All of them have their secrets. Just as in his previous book, as the story continues apace there are plenty of astute observations about family relationships.
George's discomfort with Jamie's sexuality is one of the no go subjects. When he arrives for lunch George jumps in with a comment about him bringing someone to the wedding:
"There. That sounded pretty neutral as far as he could tell.
'No dad,' said Jamie wearily. 'I mean Katie and Ray. What do you think about them getting married?'
It was true. There really was no limit to the ways in which you could say the wrong thing to your children. You offered an olive branch and it was the wrong branch at the wrong time." (p.74-5)
There are lots of observations on parent/child relationships; I like this one (Kate's reflections while driving home from the hospital):
"Besides, she liked being in the back with Jacob. The children. No responsibilities. The adults sorting everything out. Like that summer in Italy when the engine of the Alfa Romeo ruptured outside Reggio Emilia and they pulled over at the side of the road and the man with the amazing moustache came and said that it was completamente morte or something like that and Dad actually vomited into the grass, though at the time it was just another bit of strange parental behaviour and a bad smell, and she and Jamie sat on the verge playing with the binoculars and the little wooden snowflake puzzle, drinking fizzy orange without a care in the world." (p.292-3)
And Jamie reflecting on becoming an adult as he arrives for the wedding:
"The secret was to remember that you were an adult now, that all of you were adults, that there was no longer any need to fight the battles you were fighting when you were fourteen.
That was the problem, wasn't it? You left home. But you never did become an adult. Not really. You just fucked up in different and more complicated ways." (p.384)
I read the whole book on two train journeys and one afternoon at mum and dad's. The story moved along pretty quickly and the characters were all very engaging. I got attached to George, even his erratic behaviour and irrational decisions, and the picture of his lurch into confusion that is central to the book was quite vivid. The trusty Ray, who is seriously underestimated by all concerned, proves to be a solid bloke and everyone starts confiding in him. While the rest of the family are so bound up with their own troubles that they don't take George's problem seriously until a real crisis erupts.
I enjoyed this book very much, made me laugh out loud on the train in the quiet coach. A portrait of a family in crisis, that manages to pull itself back together and play to its strengths instead of its weaknesses.
(Second book in my TBR Pile Challenge. Next book picked by the random number generator is District and Circle by Seamus Heaney.)