Book review: The Red House, by Mark Haddon
Mark Haddon remains best-known for his 2003 bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, narrated by a 15-year-old boy, Christopher, “a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties”, who uncovers the broken relationships in his own family while thinking he is tracking down the killer of a neighbour’s dog.
The Red House
by Mark Haddon
Jonathan Cape, 272pp, £16.99
In 2006, Haddon published A Spot of Bother, about George, going quietly mad in Peterborough, mistakenly believing himself to be dying of cancer, while his family implodes around him. It is, among other things, another sympathetic study in male emotional ineptitude. Now here’s Haddon’s third novel for grown-ups. The Red House is quite short, set over a single week, in a rented holiday home near Hay-on-Wye, with a cast of eight: four adults and four children. Yet the intricate and unusual narrative technique Haddon uses here makes this novel much more resonant than its scale would suggest; instead of being given a single point of view, we are taken inside the heads of all eight family members turn about.
After their mother’s death, Richard invites his estranged sister Angela on an unprecedented family holiday. Facing a possibly career-ending crisis at work, he also brings his ambitious second wife Louisa and her attractive, almost sociopathically selfish 16-year-old daughter, Melissa. Angela, a teacher verging on breakdown or worse, is unhappily married and brings her husband Dominic, a failed musician who is having an affair, and their three children. Alex, 17, is an Andy McNab reader, athletic and managing his teenage lustfulness as briskly as possible. Friendless Daisy, 16, is in an evangelical Christian phase and Benjy, eight, is “a kind of boy-liquid which had been poured into whatever space he happened to be occupying”.
There is a ghostly fourth child too; Karen, born deformed, who would have been the eldest had she lived. Haddon makes her presence unnervingly real, without ever quite committing outright to the supernatural.
For a week, they are all compressed in the countryside and Haddon does an alarmingly good job at showing just how isolated each is, full of secrets, gripped by the past and shaped by their childhoods.
Writing in the third person, Haddon takes us into one consciousness then another — then adds voices that are less precisely located. There are song snippets, glancing references to books, films, television,, fragments of learning and lore, platitudes, other places, other people, other times... There are also passages of authorial distancing that are highly-wrought prose poetry, sinking far into the past or the spirit of the place: choric. The effect is oddly like a rude, demotic, masculine revision of Virginia Woolf. For although the female characters are well enough formed, Haddon remains a writer most at home delineating male limitations. yet this does not stop him writing about family life with great perception and perhaps actually nurtures insight into our ultimate aloneness.
In his excellent essay on reading, “The Right Words in the Right Order”, Haddon argues that only the novel can really articulate our inward experience, “The sense of being inside looking out ... It is this uncrossable gulf between me and not-me, between my private experience and yours,” he argues, “which lies at the heart of being human and which no other medium can touch, and this border is where the novel lives and moves and has its being.”
The Red House puts that principle into action to great effect.
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