Mark Haddon is best known for his 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was rather memorable to me because a) it was a very good book, and b) it referred to Swindon as “the arsehole of the world”. As much as I’d like to stick up for dear old Pigtown, I must admit he kind of has a point (no offence Swindonians). But it was most memorable because the story was narrated from the point of view of a teenage boy with Asperger Syndrome and, although I must confess I don’t know how accurate a portrayal it was, it worked very effectively, seemed very believable and, I think, gave me a greater understanding of the disorder and the ways in which a person with Asperger Syndrome might feel isolated from society. It seems a lot of bigwigs must have agreed with me, as it also raked in loads of awards.
A Spot of Bother also deals with mental illness and is focused around the character of George, who at the very least is in the throes of a mental breakdown but may also have dementia (depending on interpretations I think), and, as a hypochondriac, becomes absolutely convinced that what the doctor described as eczema is actually a form of skin cancer. George’s family think he’s going mad, he thinks he’s dying, and they’re all trying to hold things together while having crises of their own and driving each other up the wall to boot. George’s wife Jean is having an affair with one of his old colleagues; his daughter Katie is getting married to a man she may not love and who they all disapprove of; his son Jamie is gay (gasp!) and has been dumped by his boyfriend because he didn’t invite her to Katie’s wedding. It’s all one big tangled mess that no one knows how to fix, and in the middle of it all George is losing his mind.
I’ll admit, it doesn’t sound like the cheeriest of reads, but I was absolutely hooked. It’s actually a really funny book, and very entertaining. I definitely snorted to myself in the staff room while reading about George trying to get his head around his son’s homosexuality, and there are many comical images throughout the book. It’s so readable, not just for the humour but, on a more practical level, because the chapters are really very short, usually just a couple of pages or so, so you can whizz through in no time without feeling bogged down. And when it does start to get a little heavy while George is wallowing in despair and confusion, Katie’s son Jacob invariably appears for a spot of poo or Batman-based light relief. I felt quite attached to all of the characters, but especially Jamie. He’s such a hopeless case, seeming really rather square and neat and detached but at the same time completely heartbroken about Tony, it was very endearing. I felt a bit soppy towards them all though, but it’s very hard not to feel sympathetic towards George. He’s quite a pathetic character, not in a derogatory way but in the sense that he needs reassurance and support because he’s genuinely terrified that he’s going to die. It’s the writing of George’s character that’s quite remarkable. Once again Mark Haddon has succeeded in showing us life through the eyes of someone with a mental illness or disorder, and again it’s completely believable and eye-opening. Like I said, I have no way of knowing how accurate a portrayal it is, but it works and I can believe it and it makes sense in the way that it’s done. I really do think it’s to be applauded.
I can’t, however, end this review without a serious warning, because there were some parts of the book that came as quite an unpleasant shock to me. Lately I have become an extremely squeamish person. I don’t really know what’s changed, as I never had a problem with blood and guts before. I would watch programs about cranial surgery where the patient would have their face peeled off to allow surgical access to the skull, and I was quite a fan of Animal Hospital, but now someone only needs to stub their toe and my stomach turns. This definitely turned the reading of certain sections of A Spot of Bother into an extremely unpleasant experience. I won’t give away exactly what happens, just that there comes a point when George is increasingly afraid of his ‘skin cancer’ (eczema) and tries to take matters into his own hands. It was rather graphic. Worse, it builds up in a way that the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen, and so can begin to panic a bit in advance. Needless to say, I felt extremely squeamish extremely quickly. In fact, I had to stop reading and take a few deep breaths for fear that I’d have a funny turn in the public library, and then read through that section as fast as I possibly could. The main problem I have is that I’m a very visual reader, and I usually picture what I’m reading taking place. Unfortunately this meant that I could very clearly see what was playing out on the page in front of me, and I’ve continued to see it repeatedly ever since. Writing this now is making me picture it again, and I must admit it’s making me feel rather unwell. There is also another section later on which isn’t quite as bad, but does describe a ‘crunching like celery’ on George’s part and so also required a couple of deep breaths on my part. I’m probably just being a massive pansy but I really don’t appreciate things like this creeping up on me, hence the warning.
Squeamishness aside (oh cripes I can still see it), this really was a very entertaining read and certainly thought-provoking, and it’s safe to say that there are certain bits (some more than others) which really do stick in the memory. It was quite a satisfying read actually, and I’d definitely like to return to it again someday, although perhaps when I’m feeling a little braver.