The Ha-Ha — Review by Carole

I joined a new book club recently, and I was told that I could choose the next book. No pressure there, right? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time picking a book to recommend unless I’ve already read it.

So, I pored over books at the store trying to find something that would appeal to a fairly large group that wasn’t already standard book club fare. I skipped over such worthy titles as Glass Castles, Secret Lives of Bees, and The Red Tent in search of something not as well known.

I came across The Ha-Ha by Dave King and was immediately captivated by the title and the narrator. Living where we do affords us frequent opportunities to visit Mount Vernon. (Having someone in the family working there doesn’t hurt, either). Mount Vernon has a haha wall, and the name and idea of it always appealed to my kids when they were younger. A haha wall is "a retaining wall built into a ditch. It physically separates the lawn/garden area from the pasture/park, allowing the animals to appear as part of the landscape but keeping them off the lawn without having a fence." The haha part comes in when people don’t know it’s there and topple unsuspectingly into the ditch, causing onlookers to go “ha ha.” I’m not sure that would be my response, but one woman’s "Ha Ha" is another woman’s "Oh my God, are you all right?” But I digress.

The book’s unique narrator intrigued me from the start. Howard is a Vietnam veteran who suffered a horrific head injury that left him unable to speak in anything other than basic guttural noises that are unintelligible even to those close to him. Despite the fact that his recovery is deemed a success story, Howard is also unable to read or write. It is through Howard that The Ha-Ha story is told. A capable, intelligent man aware of the many ironies that his particular situation creates, Howard relates to us how he has come to be where he is now.

He actually is in the house he grew up in, but his parents are now gone, and he has a diverse group of roommates. He works for nuns at a convent doing their landscaping, including mowing their ha-ha wall (see earlier comment about ironies — should nuns ever have a ha-ha wall?). Also significant in his life is his former girlfriend, Sylvia. They were sweethearts when he went off to Vietnam, and she has remained a constant in his life, but her life is a mess. A single mother with a substance abuse problem, Sylvia relies on Howard to do things for her with the unwavering certainty that he will do it.

The plot of the book revolves around Howard caring for Sylvia’s son, Ryan, while Sylvia at last seeks treatment for her addiction. Ryan is not at all keen on this arrangement; Howard’s roommates are equally reluctant for many reasons; and Howard is pretty terrified and unsure of how he’ll cope with the challenges of communicating with this young boy.

Throughout the book, I found myself cringing at the prospect of Howard being hurt. He has already endured great suffering, and you just want him to be happy. You know that more pain is coming his way, and you want him to be spared. Howard shares some disturbing memories that give you some insight into what his life’s journey has been like, and you can’t help but feel that he deserves some measure of happiness.

Finding out if he gets what he deserves is what keeps you turning the pages. Emotions run the gamut as you read along—anger at Sylvia’s selfishness, protectiveness toward Howard at other’s lack of understanding, wistfulness at opportunities not taken. Poignant scenes between many of the characters stay with you long after finishing the book.

I found myself comparing The Ha-Ha to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time on more than one occasion as I read the book. Perhaps because both narrators are challenged in their own ways; perhaps because the action taking place sometimes tells you more than the narrator does about what is really happening; and perhaps because you find yourself rooting for their happiness even if you can’t readily identify what will make them happy.

I devoured the book, but I ultimately did NOT choose it for this book club’s selection (I went for The Time Traveler’s Wife instead). I just didn’t know if some of the book’s graphic scenes were what this book club would be expecting. I know, I know, The Time Traveler’s Wife has graphic scenes too, but read The Ha-Ha and see what you think. Maybe once I get to know the tastes of this book club’s members a bit better, I’ll put it up for discussion. But to you, reader of book blogs, I recommend this book.


Chris said...

I love a definitive recommendation!

I wonder if this author has written anything else -- and if his narrators are similar.

Mark Haddon's second novel was about a man with mental unbalances, so I wonder if that is that author's comfort zone.

Dave said...

Thank you for your kind words about my novel. They are much appreciated. As to the one page of explicit consentual sex, I felt it was important to give Howard a full inner life, including an active sexual inner life. Anything less, I felt, would be to treat him with a condescension he didn't deserve.

Carole said...

Thanks to Dave for joining in on the chat about The HaHa. It is quite exciting for us to hear from an author about our blog post.

I agree that the sex you included helped define Howard as a fully realized self. I didn't have a problem with that at all.

I just don't know all of the members of this book club I've joined, so I just wanted to wait until I've read some of their recommendations first. I'll probably choose The HaHa on my next pick.

Carole said...
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