There are a myriad of pitfalls associated with following up an exceptional first novel. For a newly-established author, early success opens up diverging path after diverging path, each one fraught with danger. Stick too closely to your first novel’s themes, and you risk being labeled “formulaic.” Stray too far, and you’re apt to lose your initial audience.
In “A Spot of Bother” – his first novel since the award-winning “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” – England’s Mark Haddon successfully navigates this literary tightrope, delivering a book that is, in some ways, both new and familiar.
Offering us a plot that twists, turns and doubles back on itself more than a Dan Brown thriller, “A Spot of Bother” is the story of the quiet dissolution of protagonist George Hall’s family.
George is a recent retiree grappling with his own mortality after finding an ambiguously cancerous lesion on his hip.
His wife, Jean, seeks relief from a stale marriage in the arms of one of his former co-workers.
Jamie, George’s homosexual son, struggles
to reinterpret his relationship with his parents while his love life crumbles around him. And to top it all off, George’s impulsive daughter Katie has just announced that she intends to marry Ray, her pea-brained boyfriend with “strangler’s hands.”
With his family life in such shambles, it’s no surprise when George begins to lose his mind. It’s a slow process at first, and for a while George imagines he can keep the whole thing to himself. But as the date of the wedding approaches, George’s grip on sanity becomes increasingly tenuous. “Dying was bad enough,” writes Haddon, “without having to make it easier for everyone else.”
Alternating between the bawdy and the poignant, Haddon chronicles the everyday challenges of the Halls. As the family members confront obstacle after obstacle, Haddon demonstrates the true range of his talents.
Writing from a kaleidoscope of viewpoints, he assembles a remarkably vibrant cast for what becomes a tender-hearted comedy of errors. Very rarely do novelists working
with so many protagonists develop them as evenly – or as well – as Haddon does in “A Spot of Bother.”
Though it lacks the innocence with which “The Curious Incident” was written, Haddon’s “A Spot of Bother” is just as keenly insightful as his debut.
A razor-sharp examination of the process of aging, Haddon treads over that familiar ground in a way that makes it seem new, fresh and all his own.
“Maybe the answers weren’t important,” writes Haddon. “Maybe it was the asking which mattered. Not taking anything for granted. Maybe that’s what stopped you growing old.” If his first two novels are any indication of talent still lying in store, let us hope that Mark Haddon never stops asking.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.