“A Spot Of Bother” by Mark Haddon

” A Spot Of Bother” is a humane, humorous look a man slowly unravelling in retirement and the reaction of his family to his slide into mental illness. It gets us inside the heads of an older couple and their adult children, showing, with a mix of wit, acute social observation and admirable empathy, how they try to cope with lives that are not the ones that they expected to live but are the only ones they have.

As the title suggests, this is a very polite, very English view of dealing with personal crises by trying to pretend that they’re not happening, or, if they are, then convincing yourself that they can be fixed by carrying on as normal for as long as possible.

George Hall has always been a quiet, responsible man. Now he is slowly, quietly, and with as little inconvenience to others as he can manage, being overwhelmed by mental illness. He suffers from constant anxiety and panic attacks that bring him to his knees. He has convinced himself that what his doctor diagnoses as eczema is really a fatal form of cancer.

He is aware that this is probably not a rational conclusion but it’s not a belief he can free himself from. Nor can he share that belief with others, especially with the way things are with his family. So he continues alone until he does something that no one can ignore. Although this sounds like a source of humour and is handled lightly at times, the thing that came through most strongly to me was how George’s illness isolated him, leaving him deeply afraid, quietly desperate and totally unable to ask for help. This felt very real to me.

Jean, George’s wife of many years is portrayed honestly and non-judgementally. Given her frustration at having George under her feet all the time after decades of having to live her life mostly in his absence and her affair with an ex-colleague of George’s, she could have been a stock comedy figure. Instead, we see the world through her eyes understand that her life and her loves aren’t that simple.

George and Jean are put under stress by their children who are going through dramas of their own and who both seem to be attracted to men who are not from either the class of the culture that their parents would have chosen.

Their divorced with one child daughter, Katie, announces her intention to marry the not-quiet-smart-enough-or-well-read-enough Ray. He’s very nice of course and so good with Katie’s son. He’s solid, dependable chap, but is he really someone their daughter should marry?

Their gay but only recently come out of the closet son, Jamie has a relationship with a very working-class young man that the family has never met. The upcoming wedding stresses Jamie’s relationship and makes him question the comfortable but perhaps overly-safe life he’s built for himself.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the skilled storytelling. The chapters are short. Each one immerses the reader in the mind of a member of the family. The plot is carefully crafted to get the most humour and tension from the interlocking characters while the voices of the characters keep the story real, reflecting the ambiguities and confusions and complex emotions of people who are dealing with what life is dishing out to them.

I recommend listening to the audiobook version of “A Spot Of Bother”. It’s narrated with skill and precision by Alex Jennings.

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