Book Review: A Spot of Bother

There is this exhibition that comes to Mumbai every so often, where books are sold by weight. That means, I can get a bunch of novels at throwaway prices. Of course, the editions are older and the books second-hand, but for the love of books, I honestly couldn’t care less.

I picked up this book because one of my friends recommended The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to me, which is by the same author. I still hadn’t gotten my paws on that book, so I thought I would feel out the author with this book.

Author: Mark Haddon

Story: George and Jean Hall live are an older couple that live in Peterborough. Their grown up kids, Jamie and Katie, live in London and occasionally visit. Jamie is a real estate broker, in a relationship with Tony, whereas Katie does unspecified work in an office, and is in a live-in with Ray. She has one son, Jacob, from a previous marriage, which didn’t work out. George is busy with retirement, building a studio in his backyard. Jean works at a florists and is having an affair with one of George’s ex-colleagues, David.

This rather dysfunctional family is thrown into a flurry because Katie and Ray decide to get married. The family is not to keen on Ray, because it is heavily implied that he is from working class stock. To make matters worse, George discovers a lesion on his hip, immediately assumes it is cancer, and proceeds to completely lose his mind.

Writing: The chapters are incredibly short, the longest around four pages at the most. Each chapter shifts the perspective from one character to the next, and sometimes the same events are described multiple times over, but by different characters. As a storytelling device, I have a sense that this is more suited to video production, rather than a book. I found it slightly disconcerting, but I can see why the author did it.

Secondly, the author writes in exclusively British. I don’t mean English, but British. The expressions, turns of phrase, and some of the cultural references would only be understandable to the people living there. I lived in the UK for two years, and I still found it hard to follow some of the flavour.

A slightly related point needs to be made about the visual storytelling that the author employs. The descriptions are slightly strange. I can’t remember any examples right this minute, but I thought they were trying to hard to be evocative and actually left a sense of puzzlement instead.

Finally, the part that irked me the most was the introduction of new characters fleetingly into the narrative. There was no backstory given, nor were the characters later mentioned at all. The reader was meant to derive their entire tangent to the main narrative, merely by the single sentence context afforded to them. It was perplexing, and I spent many minutes flicking through previous pages, wondering if the characters had been introduced, and memory was failing me. What is worse is that this was done throughout the book. After a point, I gave up trying to construct a relationship chart in my head and just resigned myself to having names without reference in the story.

Overall, I would say the writing was not too bad for reading, but the solecisms above made it difficult reading for me.

Characters: Extremely unlikeable characters. I personally do not like saccharine sweet angels either, but I do like the blend of good and bad qualities in the protagonists. Every character in this book was self-centred and selfish, prone to extreme self-absorption, failed at the basic living of their lives, and generally left behind a sour taste.

Pace: This is one attribute I enjoyed about this book. It is happening. There is a definite forward momentum of the story, and it finally does culminate in resolutions. I will ignore the fact that there were happy endings all around, however implausible, in deference to the pace.

Conclusion: In spite of the flaws in this book, which made it difficult to read, I found it hard to stop reading. The book is definite page turner, and I think the pace is largely responsible for making it seem so irresistible. I haven’t written off the author as yet, and will definitely give one of his other works a shot.

Rating: ✩✩

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