A Spot of Bother (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
When George Hall, an unobtrusive man settling into a quiet retirement with his wife of many years, discovers a patch of eczema on his thigh, he immediately convinces himself that he has terminal cancer in spite of his doctor’s diagnosis to the contrary. George begins to suffer from panic attacks, but initially does so in such a polite, unfailingly British fashion that his family hardly notices. Granted, their distractions are many. Katie has announced that she is going to marry her boyfriend Ray, whom George and Jean feel is too common for their temperamental but bright daughter. Katie must decide whether she loves Ray himself or merely the financial security and tender solicitude he provides her and her son Jacob. George and Jean’s homosexual son, Jamie, agonizes over whether to take the last public step out of the closest by bringing his boyfriend Tony to the wedding, and he initially does not understand why Tony interprets Jamie’s reluctance as rejection. Jean resents the time and energy she must devote to planning a wedding she feels is a mistake when she would rather spend time with her lover, David Symmonds, who is also George’s former coworker.
Initially, these plot elements may seem pedestrian, and the novel’s pace is indeed somewhat leisurely. However, author Mark Haddon is particularly skilled at getting inside characters’ heads to pull out their quirkiest innermost thoughts, as evidenced by his critically acclaimed first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), which is written from an autistic boy’s point of view. In A Spot of Bother, Haddon brings to life four complex personalities instead of one, but his skill is such that the reader becomes intimately familiar with each character’s complex emotions and eventually comes to understand that George, Jean, Katie, and Jamie are not just going about their everyday routines, but rather are struggling with life-altering questions and decisions.
Ultimately, George’s issues are the most dramatic. At first, his odd behavior is discreet enough that he can keep it from his family; for instance, George begins showering and dressing in complete darkness so he will not have to see what he still believes is cancer growing on his thigh. During his panic attacks, he sometimes moos like a cow to calm himself but softly enough to escape notice. However, George’s distress grows when he witnesses Jean making love to David in their bedroom, although they do not see him, and his panic attacks increase in severity. Finally, he tries to remove the affected skin from his thigh using scissors and injures himself somewhat seriously, which his family cannot fail to see. While George is embarrassed because he inconvenienced his family and got blood all over the house, he cannot help but find the hospital environment somewhat comforting.
Although less physically dramatic, the rest of the family’s problems are no less important to them. Jean is shocked when her lover David asks her to leave George, and she must decide whether the initial bloom of romance and passion she shares with David will endure and whether it is worth destroying a marriage. Jamie, after much soul-searching, realizes he does love Tony and wants him to come to the wedding, but Tony has already left him and it may be too late. Katie is unable to answer Ray in the affirmative when he directly asks her if she loves him. While Ray has no intention of kicking Katie and Jacob out of his house, he does not think they should get married unless she loves him, and the wedding is called off.
In addition to creating multilayered characters, Haddon is particularly adept at portraying realistic and commonplace family dynamics. George and Jean, for instance, are going through the awkward period of rediscovery that countless married pairs have endured when the husband retires and is suddenly home all the...
(The entire section is 1591 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 14 (July 15, 2006): 691.
Library Journal 131, no. 14 (September 1, 2006): 136-137.
The New York Times 155 (September 7, 2006): E11.
The New York Times Book Review 155 (September 17, 2006): 12.
People 66, no. 12 (September 18, 2006): 56.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 28 (July 17, 2006): 134.
The Spectator 302 (September 16, 2006): 44-45.
The Times Literary Supplement, September 8, 2006, p. 21.
The Wall Street Journal 248, no. 54 (September 2, 2006): P8.