Mark Haddon's bestselling debut novel, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, was an instantly compelling immersion in an unfamiliar world. Through the eyes of autistic protagonist Christopher Boone, Haddon cleverly and clearly explored an infrequently explained disability. In some ways, his follow-up novel, A Spot Of Bother, follows a similar path, by getting at a mental problem from the inside. But for all its wry humor and bubbly soap-opera theatrics, it's initially baffling enough to keep readers as perplexed as Curious Incident's mystery-solving star.
George Hall, patriarch of an uncommunicative, middle-class British family, is happily retired and in good health when he finds a mysterious spot on his hip. Certain that it's cancer, he begins having debilitating anxiety attacks. Meanwhile, his wife Jean is screwing one of his former co-workers, their daughter Katie is marrying a man whom the family hates, and their son Jamie is debating the major step of bringing his boyfriend to the wedding. On a surface level, these stories are downright generic, but Haddon digs deeply into each of them, capably exploring the feeling of homecoming that Jean gets from her lover, Jamie's struggles to grow up, and the way Katie's failed former marriage made her cling to a man she isn't sure she loves.
Spot Of Bother's main problem is the steep learning curve, as Haddon casually tosses out names and references to past events as though readers were part of George's social circle and should already know, say, who Susan and Bob are, or why the capsizing of John Zinewski's Fireball was emotionally significant. The novel jumps into George's head the way Curious Incident jumped into Christopher's, and Haddon's perspective on anxiety attacks—their profundity while they're happening, the sense of unreality and ridiculousness when they retreat—is intelligent and evocative. But George's head is a far more complicated place than Christopher's, and takes far more adaptation. And Haddon doesn't stay there long—instead, he jumps from perspective to perspective, for a busy and sometimes overcrowded narrative. Eventually, he hits a rhythm that turns dozens of tiny personal cliffhangers (Will Katie and Ray make up in time for their wedding? Will George disrupt the ceremony?) into a lumpy but genial compulsive page-turner. But first, Haddon has to yank his audience far enough into George's head that they care about the people around him. The journey there could have been much smoother.