Though suffering a major nervous breakdown, Mark Haddon’s 57 year old protagonist George, in the novel A spot of bother has plenty of pragmatic insights. For example, casually while trying to fight off panic he finishes reading a novel (Sharpe’s Enemy by Bernard Cornwell), but chooses to turn on the t.v rather than start a new book:
“He was tempted to start another of his still-unread Christmas presents. But you had to let the atmosphere of one novel seep away before launching into the next”
Sage advice, sometimes.
I found Haddon’s book, though, firmly establishing its own atmosphere and identity, despite picking it up straight after finishing J.M. Coetzee’s strange and haunting Age of Iron (which I hope to do justice in a post shortly).
Part of this is down to the style of the novel, with short and sharp sentences making up chapters that rarely pass four pages – not a world away from the style he used in his genre-breaking tale of a young boy with Asperger’s Syndrome The curious incident of the dog in the night-time. If Coetzee’s book often had me puzzled after a number of paragraphs (in a good way), Haddon’s book instead, with a deceptive ease, allows you to race through chapters without realising the questions that are building up in the back of your mind.
Couple that with the structure of the novel, where four characters in a family tell their story in sequential chapters, and you have a genuine page-turner. You’re constantly left with cliffhangers, leaving you racing through the interceding three chapters that separate you from the resolution – only to pick up another three cliff-hangers on the way. Four complex and interesting characters who, like a chain gang, pull you through the novel which skilfully walks the line between farce and tragedy.
There’s a tension in the novel that you feel long before you can actually put your finger on it. It comes from the down-to-earth mundane language juxtaposed against plausible but dramatic events (there’s one scene which I think Chuck Palahniuk would be proud of, in terms of shock). Like one big panic attack, part of the novel is constantly trying to stay grounded, while the other races towards disaster.
A great read.