I so wanted to like this book…truly I did. I’m sorry to say then that I didn’t…especially coz it’s Mark Haddon and I expected to like it, it was almost a given that I would. Oh well…this book is an excellent example of why I’m wary of second books from authors who have made brilliant debuts. It’s almost as if they said everything they need to say and are left with a diluted version of their thoughts that they force into a new story. I think I understand why Harper Lee never wrote another book – there was no need.
I know I might sound a little harsh here but that’s only coz I’m so disappointed. Not disappointed with the subject Haddon chose, but with pretty much everything else! The way in which he chose to develop his characters – NOT! They do evolve albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace and rather unconvincingly at that, until by Page 400, with another 100 pages still to go, I was just plain frustrated with their inability to communicate, their extreme selfishness, and their unnerving knack for ignoring the obvious. I understand that people are like that, but for all four members of a family, to be dysfunctional in similar ways in one book – makes for pretty tedious reading. And the one thing I thought Haddon was incapable of was tedium!
And then there is the length – 503 pages!! It’s almost as if Haddon decided he wanted to do a 500 page novel and was damned if he didn’t! This book could have and in my opinion should have been tightly edited. I don’t see why that would have been difficult, while still preserving the essence of the tale. In its present avatar I found it too wordy and burdened with excessive details that just made for an exhausting read. Every action and emotion broken down into its component parts and every part then written down in detail…it’s almost like Haddon doesn’t trust his readers to have a basic grasp on Life, much like his characters, who certainly don’t! Or it might be a hangover from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (which by the way I loved), where he was writing from the POV of an autistic child, and where this very style worked wonderfully. In the absence of certified medical conditions however, the characters in this story come across as shallow, self-absorbed, and sometimes just plain stupid! And with no obvious endearing qualities in any of them, they’re really hard to like or sympathize with, more’s the pity.
So we have George Hall, the patriarch & quintessential British gentleman, recent retiree and hypochondriac, battling imaginary cancer and very real depression. The description of his panic attacks and their consequences is one thing that Haddon does really well. He’s accurate and sensitive and gets into George’s head very effectively indeed! Jean the wife, who’s conflicted about almost everything in Life, which in itself is not novel, but her rather juvenile attitude and wilful denial of her problems, gets on the nerves after a while. Then there’s Katie the daughter, with her son Jacob, who is at a crossroads, of entirely her own making (again, just my opinion) and Jamie the son, gay and conflicted about commitment. Together they form this very traditional British family – in that they are reserved, always conscious of outward appearances and as a result, severely disconnected from their own dysfunctional reality. There is much concern in the Hall family over the impending Katie-Ray union, the reasons for which are never very clear. Haddon describes only vague misgivings that they feel over whether Ray is indeed right for Katie – the cheek of them! On the other hand, Ray, Katie’s fiancé, struck me as the only rational, normal human being in the whole melee, which means he was regarded suspiciously & disparagingly by everyone else! None of the characters communicate effectively with one another, which leads to much confusion and some hilarity. There was however no unpredictability about the people or their actions and although Haddon’s irony and wit is evident in parts, it’s like looking for the proverbial needle in this haystack of words Oh that it weren’t so! Would have made for a much easier and interesting read.
Still my main grouse remains the book’s length and its excessive wordiness, which I feel takes away significantly from the enjoyment of reading it. And the chapters…144 of them, most a couple of pages long and some just one paragraph!! What’s with that? Seemed very gimmicky to me, wholly unnecessary and rather distracting. In a nutshell, there are many authors who have done dysfunctional better than Haddon. Haddon himself has done better in his first book and although they are two different subjects I cannot seem to shake off the hangover and neither it appears, has Haddon! I thought this book would be entertaining, interesting and original – and was disappointed on all three counts I needed a respite after the strain of reading Narcopolis last week and now what I need desperately is a respite from this one! This ‘Spot of Bother’ has turned out to be much more than a spot! It’s utterly avoidable (unless you are a die-hard Haddon fan) – but don’t let that stop you from reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, where Haddon is on the spot with his writing
Enjoy the Weekend People