Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
A Spot of Bother
By Mark Haddon
ISBN 0224080466, Hardcover, $45, October 2006
Retiree George Hall is in trouble. He has a ‘cancerous’ patch on his leg which his doctor has ‘misdiagnosed’ as eczema, his wife is having an affair with a former colleague, his feisty daughter is marrying an unsuitable ‘pleb’, and his son is not only irresponsible and immature, he’s also gay. While the Hall’s are a fairly typical dysfunctional family, and perhaps their crises really do amount to no more than a spot of bother (that could easily be the theme), Haddon moves his lens in so closely that they become an ‘everyfamily’ full of the same laughter, pain, messes, and horror that fill our own lives.
The story begins as George has a ‘funny spell’ while purchasing a suit for the funeral of a friend. As he notices the puffy flesh on his skin, he instantly decides that its Cancer and equally quickly decides that suicide is his only option. The reader follows George’s silent attempts to cope with his ‘Cancer’, and the ensuing madness which builds partly as a result of George’s ‘stiff upper lip’ and the way he tamps down any desire to bring his fears or desire into the open:
The secret of contentment, George felt, lay in ignoring many things completely. How anyone could work in the same office for ten years or bring up children without putting certain thoughts permanently to the back of their mind was beyond him. And as for that last grim lap when you had a catheter and no teeth, memory loss seemed like a godsend. (4)
Although in many respects, A Spot of Bother is a story of aphasia: the tamping of emotions, feeling and discussion into a nameless dread, George isn’t the only character who has difficulty speaking. His wife Jean is also absent in her way. Although her aphasia isn’t as obvious as George’s, she has an affair without thinking about where it might go, and lets herself sleepwalk through the tragedy of her husband’s insanity hardly noticing its impact on him or her children. She is also blind to her own children’s pain as they struggle with their identity, and with the balance between neat shallowness and messy love. It’s a relatively serious scenario, and George gets progressively worse as his daughter Katie struggles to decide whether to marry a man she doesn’t love and his son struggles to commit to a relationship that he does love. It’s also a world that many readers would recognise (though perhaps not the scissors scene), which is part of why this book is such a satisfying read. But while the themes are serious, A Spot of Bother is anything but bleak, or dour. Right from the first moments of the book, there is humour. For example, when George goes to visit a Psychiatrist about his depression, he tells him he’s been taking antidepressants: “He decided not to mention the codeine and the whisky” and Dr Foreman tells him that the side-effects are “Weeping, sleeplessness and anxiety.”
Even the grisly scene (perhaps one of the grosser moments in modern literature) where George decides to personally cut out his lesion is quite funny in a teeth gritting way. Haddon’s metaphors, such as comparing pinched skin to the white peaks of hot cheese on a pizza, or the utter slapstick of George’s thoughtful observations as he fumbles around the house bleeding copiously and wondering about whether to grab a fluffy towel or how to get across the white carpet while his lesion remains flapping against his hip, leave the reader laughing through the horror. It’s a horror that moves between the intensity of George’s self-reflection:
He began examining his skin in detail. On his arms. On his chest. On his stomach. Turning round and looking over his shoulder so that he could see his back.
It was not a good thing to do. It was like looking at a petri dish in a laboratory. Every square inch held some new terror. Dark brown moles, wrinkled like sultanas, freckles clumped into archipelagos of chocolate-coloured islands, bland flesh-coloured bumps, some slack, some full of fluid.
His skin had become a zoo of alien life forms. If he looked closely enough he would be able to see them moving and growing. He tried not to look closely. (273-3)
And the expansiveness of Haddon’s world, where there is, above all, a kind of family glue that holds everyone together in spite of the dysfunction. Though everything looks like it is falling apart; the weather is bad; George is embarrassing; Jean’s affair has been publicly outed (with a headbutt); and the guests are upset, there are still wedding bells, real love, and an upbeat, lighthearted ending that almost leaves the reader cheering. The characters all develop and grow from the one dimensional self-absorbed people that start the novel to the complex and interesting ones that end it: “We don’t realise how important it is. This…this place. Trees. People. Cakes. Then it’s taken away. And we realise our mistake. But it’s too late.” (368). Losing face isn’t so bad after all. Despite the lesion, the affair, the weather, the disappointing son, and the potato head son-in-law, the things that matter are still in place. There is still wine and broccoli. And George gets to keep his aphasia, as long as he leaves the scissors alone.