This review contains spoilers.
Last week we had three days off for the King’s Birthday and I bought two new books in anticipation of sitting by the pool of a nice guesthouse on the other side of the river. What actually ended up happening was that I got sick for four days and read both books in various stages of fever and sniffling on the couch.
A Spot of Bother
I started with Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother (a second-hand copy on the title page of which was scribbled “I hope you will enjoy it as I did” with a smiley face and an unintelligible signature). I’m a huge fan of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and had also just read another very enjoyable Haddon novel – The Red House – while bus backpacking in Vietnam. I knew A Spot of Bother would be a fun, easy read; I got through its 390 pages in just over a day. What I had forgotten about Haddon, however, was that his books are not just engrossing family dramas, but family dramas loaded with honesty and insight. I found myself very much relating to this novel from the first page, when George – a fifty-seven year old retiree – begins obsessing about a lesion on his hip. It quickly becomes clear that George is suffering from severe anxiety; he is scared of flying, of being alone, and of speaking at his daughter’s upcoming wedding. I immediately recognised some of George’s symptoms (the less extreme ones, thankfully) as my own. It is an almost unexplainable relief to find in literature something you have been unable or afraid to understand about yourself. I certainly agree with David Kamp in this New York Times book review when he says that A Spot of Bother is a “fine example of why novels exist.” It is funny and sad, intelligent, insightful, and – above all – uplifting. A Spot of Bother is a fine example of a book that takes you out of yourself and reminds you that it’s okay to be yourself at exactly the same time.
On day three of the lingering flu I started Atonement by Ian McEwan. This is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for ages, after recommendations from friends, rave reviews, and enjoying a number of McEwan’s other novels (most notably, Enduring Love, On Chesil Beach, and Saturday). And maybe the hype or an accidental glimpse online of one of the key plot points spoiled it, but I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I expected to. I liked the character of Briony – I related to her longing to be a writer, and enjoyed her moment of realising what “real” writing is about. The first part of Atonement is certainly the strongest – with all its characters and perspectives stepping around one another. And while the writing is beautiful, the descriptions seemed a little much at times; the second section during World War II, especially, felt unnecessarily long winded to me.
After finishing the novel I spent the afternoon watching the 2007 film adaptation. The film is very visually captivating (the house, the fountain, Cecilia’s green dress). I always like to see a period novel (Atonement begins in 1934) on film, because I feel I don’t have the knowledge of history to quite do it justice in my own mind. I thought the young Briony (Saoirse Ronan) was perfect, and I particularly liked the use of sound; the beat of Briony’s clacking typewriter keys becoming a soundtrack, what drives her, what drives the ultimate tragedy of the story. Benedict Cumberbatch is subtle and sinister as the chocolate baron Paul Marshall, and I found the continuous scene on the beach during the war particularly affecting – horses being shot, a young man shivering, a group of men singing hymns, another group drinking.
I realised, upon watching the film, that in my slightly feverish state I had completely missed the point of the book. McEwan’s novel gives us its most important revelation in a single and (or so it seemed to me) very indirect sentence on the second last page. The film, on the other hand, feels much too direct: Vanessa Redgrave as an elderly Briony spelling it out for a TV interview accompanied by oh-so-clear visual flashbacks.
So Atonement is a story, I finally realised, about truth and imagination. Sort of like Life of Pi. Which would the reader prefer? The hard truth or the nice lie? In what way is Briony helping by writing a happy ending now? Is she doing more to help herself? To assuage her own guilt?
Overall, I liked Atonement, but I think I would have enjoyed it more had I been well. Perhaps McEwan is best saved for healthy, poolside reading. Haddon, on the other hand, is marvellously comforting on a sick day.
A Spot of Bother is Mark Haddon’s second novel for adults, and was first published in 2006. In 2009 a film adaptation was made, in French, with the title Une Petite Zone de turbulences.
Atonement was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001. It is McEwan’s eighth novel.