The primary character in Mark Haddon’s “A Spot of Bother”, Douglas Hall, is 57. Much of the “humour” of the novel derives from his unhinged behaviour as he suffers from a nervous breakdown/depressive episode. I wrote yesterday about how this is in poor taste, as is the humour wrung from people’s shock horror reaction to a gay couple kissing. The novel is less than ten years old, but it had more of a 70’s sitcom feel to it in these passages. But what I wanted to write about in a bit more detail here is the portrayal of Douglas. Haddon tells us he is 57, but then writes him at least ten years older. He is retired, which of course is eminently possible at 57, but he has pretty much given up on life. He potters around, building a shed, watching videos and taking an interest in bird spotting. He finds the modern world confusing and challenging, and when he has sex with his wife it takes them both by surprise.

57 isn’t old.

Why does this matter? Because when the central character is unrealistic, hard to like but also hard to believe in, the whole book suffers. Without a convincing portrayal in this role the rest of the characters struggle. Some are better than others – the daughter Katie for example is well drawn, and the wife, Jean, with her badly kept secret affair was also believeable. But given the caricature that is Douglas and Jean’s son Jamie, I wasn’t convinced Haddon had ever met a gay man.

Of course, having written the above I then checked the Internet (does it age me that I still capitalise Internet?  Of course it does) expecting to find out that Haddon was gay, but it appears not. Interestingly I found some confirmation of my observations about reviewers – so for example the Sydney Morning Herald said “while the characterisation can’t be faulted, A Spot of Bother fails to fulfil its early promise. What initially shapes up as a disquietingly soft stab in the human heart turns obvious and formulaic. Haddon’s examination of the contours of love is forensic in its insight but a sentimental undertow proves too alluring to resist” and the Guardian said “it never tries to be much more than good jokes or funny situations….readers could be forgiven for wanting – and expecting – more.” Selectively quoting reviewers to support your position is cheating, and I rarely do it, but there was something about the half hearted quotes on the cover that led me to suspect my feelings were shared.

In his earlier career Haddon wrote exclusively for children. The migration from that to adult novels obviously isn’t easy, and some of the weaknesses of this novel could be seen as deriving from the habits of writing for children – the cheap laughs, the weakly drawn characters, the tendency towards slapstick. So perhaps rather than seeing this as a follow up novel to “A Curious Incident” it is better thought of as a transition novel from writing for kids to writing for adults?

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