Families, as anyone who has ever had one knows, are never perfect. But thankfully, they are also rarely such complete and utter disasters as the one created in Mark Haddon's novel, A Spot of Bother.
George Hall is the 61-year-old patriarch of a quartet dysfunctional enough to put a psychologist's kids through college. His daughter is a single mom trying to decide whether to marry a man everyone dislikes, possibly including herself. His son is resentfully gay, convinced his father despises him, and unable to commit to the man he loves. George's wife is having an affair with his former co-worker.
This obviously is not the retirement George had envisioned when he quit work and began the manly project of building a shed in his garden. Is it any wonder that he is going quietly but unmistakably insane? Aided by a mysterious growth on his hip—which in one of the more distressing scenes of a strangely disturbing book, prompts George to try his hand at surgery—and catching his wife in flagrante delicto with her paramour, George's normally placid mind wanders to darker and darker places. As they plan for a wedding that may or may not take place, the family rallies, in their own inimitable way, around their failing father/husband, whose depression at times leaves him nearly catatonic.
The trials and terrors of late middle age have been put on paper by some of our best fiction writers, most notably of late by talents like Richard Russo and Paul Auster. Haddon, who captured attention with his wonderfully imaginative novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is no stranger to a creative challenge.
Haddon's effort is ambitious—the novel is told from the point of view of all four family members—which is perhaps why it meets with limited success. It doesn't quite work as a comic novel; frankly, the Halls are just too troubled to be very funny. But it paints a vivid, brilliant tableau of a family striving to come to grips with their mediocrity and each other.
Ian Schwartz writes from New York City.