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A Spot of Bother is Mark Haddon’s unforgettable follow-up to the internationally beloved bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Here the madness (literally) of family life proves rich comic fodder for Haddon’s cracling prose and bittersweet insights into misdirected love.

Unnoticed in the uproar caused by his daughter’s controversial nuptials, sixyt-one-year-old George Hall discovers a sinister lesion on his hip, and quietly begins to lose his mind. The way these damaged people fall apart–and come together–as a family is the true subject of Haddon’s distrubring yet amusing portrait of a dignified man trying to go insane politely.

Are you familiar with the term “you can’t choose your family?” I am. And I am reminded of it every time I’m forced to attend dinners, parties, funerals–and the absolute worst: weddings.

(Just a reminder, happily married aunts and uncles, single people don’t like being reminded that they’re single. And for the record, having “you’ll find someone” said to you just makes the situation all the more sad.)

This, I think, is one of the reasons why I related so much to Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother, where everything starts falling apart for the Hall family when daughter Katie announces she’s marrying again–to a man no one thinks is right for her.

When I bought the book, and before I started reading it, I thought the whole thing would be told from the perspective of George, the person who is “trying to go insane politely”. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the point-of-view revolves around the four members of the Hall Family.

I’m not always a fan of multiple perspectives when it comes to books. I like having an anchor when reading, not minding if I don’t know what’s happening somewhere else because it makes me feel all the more involved in the fictional (or non-fictional) world I’m reading. But with A Spot of Bother, I thought the fact that the point-of-view went around the main characters made them feel more complete, more real–more complex.

Characters lie. When you read a book with a perspective, your main character is always described with rose-tinted glasses. Sure, they can be flawed–who likes perfect protagonists anyway? But they’re always doing things that are explainable. But that’s not the case in A Spot of Bother.

When we’re reading with George, we see him as a man who just wants to be a better father than his dad; someone who likes the quiet, and for life to be as uneventful as possible. But when we switch to Jean, the wife, we see him as someone who doesn’t appreciate having a wife. From Katie’s point-of-view, he’s someone who never cared–because he’s always so reserved. And for son Jamie, George is someone who can never understand what it is to be gay–and to be happy about being gay.

Having met George through these points-of-view, he is suddenly more than just someone who wants to be a better dad. We see the life choices he made, the mistakes he will commit–we really get to know George. And while we root for him not “to go insane politely”, we’re also wishing that he’d make an effort to save his family.

Reading A Spot of Bother, I find that I like the book a lot for its character studies. Mark Haddon populated the book with almost stereotypes, but gives each character such color that you feel you’re reading about actual people.

And as for the story… Well, it serves its purpose. It takes these five characters who could’ve been one-dimensional and boring, takes them on a journey, and makes them realize that sometimes doing the polite thing just doesn’t cut it.

A highly enjoyable quick read.

Jason Lim blogs at Blurred Lights.

I don’t want to blend in, like some of the others, slough away the past, adopt this new place, or rather attempt to be adopted by it, as an orphan. No place will mother or father me now. Countries are not mine and I am not theirs. I feel nothing for them, they are merely temporary, political intrusions into geographic cartography. There is just me, my draftboard, my rented house.

The phrase a nuclear family has always struck me as a strange one. For all its clinical focus on defining the family unit as a set body, it manages to lose all sense of what makes a family, namely the messy series of overlapping relationships that exist regardless of dysfunction. Yet the family continues to be focused on as an exactly defined entity, whether it be for a moral crusade (gay marriage, abortion, even divorce – I remember the propaganda surrounding the divorce referendum in Ireland in 1995), a population census, or marketing. The idea of what the family should be seems to take precedence over the reality.

Lara Fergus’s novel is a discussion of how such ideals as family, ethnicity and personal identity can survive in a vacuum, whether the objective categories we structure our lives in relation to can survive indefinitely.

The story begins with our nameless cartographer already embarked on a strange personal obsession. She is determined to define her own home in relation to a central point, capture it with a map of her own creation. It will account for each of the objects within the house and even herself, a constituent element of the home, defined on paper by the rules of her profession. The interior is spartan and orderly, allowing for ease of measurement.

One evening the cartographer is disturbed by the arrival of her twin sister, begging for a place to stay. Initially she refuses. The presence of her sister would threaten the viability of her work, a foreign object straying into the controlled environment. Despite her objections, however, the twin sister refuses to leave and eventually is allowed to stay for a short while. The cartographer prefers to focus on her work, but her sister insists on discussing the outside world and trying to engage her in conversation. The two siblings have not seen one another for over a year, with the sister having abandoned the cartographer after the outbreak of a disastrous war. Now the country they called home no longer exists, their family is scattered across borders as refugees and their ethnicity is reason enough to be suspected by the police.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn some of what the ‘other’ sister endured over her time away from the cartographer. How she was forced to flee from the threat of murder and rape at the hands of soldiers, living like a fugitive in the wilderness trying to avoid checkpoints and patrols. While the cartographer has become obsessed with the study of ordered space, her twin is consumed with grief at what she has lost. The house itself becomes divided between them due to their polarised responses to the traumatic exile from their eradicated past.

Lara Fergus has fashioned a deeply intimate portrayal of the relationship between two sisters, made all the more affecting by the cartographer’s absorption in abstract ideas of space. Like the characters in Goethe’s Elective Affinities she is attempting to render the personal as something scientific, an objective reality. There is a telling moment when she mentions how her professional work is supposed to be referred to as ‘ours’, and not ‘mine’, to reinforce morale. She is denied ownership even of the tasks she performs to earn money (which in turn is spent on a home she rents). In the absence of real identity, she has turned to a self-created ordered universe emanating from her draft board.

Fergus’s descriptions of the house itself reflect the cartographer’s perception of the building, a living thing that waits for her to return from work. Its surfaces contract and expand with the temperature, the lit windows resemble watching eyes belonging to some massive creature that sits on her street. Her relationship to her home is similar to the notion of architecture defining our identity described by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. The presence of her sister is therefore a personal invasion into her sense of self.

This is a thought provoking and fascinating novel. I greatly enjoyed it.

With thanks to Spinifex Press.

Books always tell me to find “solitude,” but I’ve Googled their authors, and they all have spouses and kids and grandkids, as well as fraternity and sorority memberships. The universally patronizing message of the authors is “Okay, I got lucky and found someone to be with, but if I’d hung in there just a wee bit longer, I’d have achieved the blissful solitude you find me writing about in this book.”

Ever since Liz Dunn was a child she knew she was the loneliest girl in the world. Having grown into a 42 year old office worker, she has found herself stuck in the role of a spinster, harangued by her disappointed mother and pitied by her older and more successful siblings. Liz has taken to writing a record of her life after seeing a meteor shower while standing in the carpark of a video store. We learn about her childhood discovery of a dead body, a fateful encounter in Rome when she was on a school trip aged sixteen and the arrival of a handsome and  bewitching young man named Jeremy seven years ago – her twenty year old son.

Liz gave her baby up for adoption when he was born. The first she hears of him is when she is a late night phone call from hospital admissions saying she is listed as his emergency contact. Jeremy is recovering from a drug overdose and Liz agrees to take him in. In a single evening she has become a mother to a child she never thought she would see again. Jeremy is a charismatic, funny young man, who has his own little eccentricities. Including convincing Liz to crawl along a freeway in the middle of the afternoon. Having been bounced around adoption services his whole life, she discovers her son is a capable and independent young man, with a wicked sense of humour. They both get along incredibly well and Liz for the first time in her life no longer feels lonely. She refuses to reveal who Jeremy’s father is though and through her journal we learn more about the circumstances of her son’s conception during the school trip to Rome. Unfortunately having spent her life alone obsessed with death, Liz’s happiness is tragically cut short.

All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?

Coupland writes stories about real people who endure lives of fantastical extremes. All Families Are Psychotic begins as a story about a mother and son who have contracted HIV, yet evolves into a gentle comedy about dysfunction, with a miraculous third act. This book continues Coupland’s themes of feuding families, mortality, owing to his own childhood as an army brat whose parents came strong religious backgrounds. His writing contains a lot of dry wit and low-key eccentrics lost in life’s twists and turns. This is tragedy on novacane, a numbed, weary response to the pain of loss, that gives way to a bleary kind of hope.

Each of Coupland’s novels are self-contained meditations on life and death, a formula he has perfected since his trope defining debut Generation X (despite his objections to being seen as a kind of spokesperson for shiftless slackers and baby boomer offspring).

Oh and the title? It’s Liz’s email address.

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