The Red House

  • Mark Haddon
  • Doubleday
  • 272 pp.

On the heels of the author’s wildly popular "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" comes another inventive novel — the perfect summer read.

Reviewed by Alice Stephens

Summer is coming and with it the prospect of vacation, and the piles of books that have been saved up to be read during those few, precious days of freedom. If vacationing with extended family, however, beware of packing Mark Haddon’s latest novel, The Red House, in your luggage. Even though the book is an absorbing and entertaining read, you may find it cuts too close to the bone as you navigate the hurt and snubs, the little daily dramas, the dredging up of painful memories that only those closest to you can inflict.

Told within the span of a one-week getaway to the lush valleys and windy moors of the Welsh-English border, the story ping-pongs among the members of the families of two estranged siblings, Richard and Angela, who are vacationing together six months after the death of their mother.

Richard has escaped the painful upbringing by their alcoholic and emotionally abusive parents to become a successful neuroradiologist, replete with a Mercedes, a wife who looks as if she “had been purchased from an exclusive catalog at some exorbitant price” and a Georgian apartment in tony Moray Place in Edinburgh. By contrast, Angela is so consumed by her past that she is in danger of losing her sanity. One of her many fears is that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the disease that claimed their mother. Busy battling phantoms of yesteryear, she is blind to the real problems that threaten the stability of her family, namely, her daughter Daisy’s identity crisis and the infidelity of her husband, Dominic.

Completing the merry-go-round of characters are Alex, Angela’s oldest son and possibly the most well adjusted of the group; his younger brother, Benjy, who lives in a world of imagination and dark fears; Richard’s second wife, Louisa, who struggles with guilt over past sexual indiscretions; and Melissa, the spoiled and manipulative mean-girl daughter from Louisa’s first marriage.

The story is narrated through the stream-of-consciousness musings of the characters, hopping from one to the other, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. The constant shifting of viewpoint can get dizzying as the reader tries to keep track of who is speaking. And the human characters are not the only voices in the book: The house in which they are staying (“a Romano-British farmstead, abandoned, ruined, plundered for stone, built over, burnt and rebuilt”), the stillborn daughter of Angela and Dominic, the hills and landscape, the author and others, get a say as well.

Along with the frequent change of viewpoints (and the occasional shift from past to present tense), random bits of borrowed text lard the pages, usually with no indication of their origins. The reader might recognize an excerpt from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or Dracula, but the sources of most of the quoted passages, which also include songs, poems, movies, TV shows and newspaper articles, must be guessed. It is all meant to meld in with the stream-of-consciousness narration to show, in today’s world, the ubiquity of cell phones, the Internet, televisions and loudspeakers that relentlessly encroach upon the thought processes.

The reader may be forgiven for finding these intrusive globs of lifted text annoying, for it is Haddon’s writing that is the greatest pleasure of this book, the words a gorgeous, glossy lacquer over the framework of the plot, drawing and dazzling the eye. Even the mere act of washing up is elegantly articulated: “Richard swilled the pan, flipped the brush over and used the wedged rear to scrape the cooked egg off the pitted aluminum base … He moved the brush in swift circles and zigzags and figure eights, each calligraphic figure swiftly overwritten by the next.”

With breathtaking detail, the author — whose long list of publications includes the charming, inventive and wildly popular The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, read in high schools and book clubs around the world — constructs the interior of each of his characters, until they are fully realized, with entirely distinct histories, motivations, fears and dreams. Because the reader knows them so intimately, it becomes easier to figure out whose voice is whose as the narrative jumps from one to the other.

But sometimes, whether intentionally or not, the author muddies things, so that what seems to be Benjy, for instance, remembering an imaginary friend, morphs into something else, something wiser than Benjy could be, a meditation on men dying of hypothermia on a glacier, a green duffle coat that figures in his mother’s ruminations, two verses of a poem of whose provenance Google could not enlighten, and then a paragraph pitying only children, who after a lonely childhood among adults, continue to suffer once their parents are dead, for “who will turn to you and say, Yes, I remember the red rocking horse. … Yes, I remember the imaginary bed under the hawthorn tree.” With eyes slipping frictionlessly over the polished prose, the reader might not stop to wonder where Benjy’s voice has gone.

Though Angela describes the vacation as a “great sliding nothing of this forced leisure,” the characters manage to accomplish quite a bit. Daisy stops hiding behind religion and comes to terms with herself. Angela finally lets go of the ghost of her stillborn daughter. Louisa confesses and Richard accepts. Alex and Melissa engage in a bit of vengeful sex, for which each thinks they have got the better of the other. Just as in real life, not everything is tidily resolved, and one is not sure if the holiday has left them closer or even farther apart as a family.

At the end of the book, the reader might feel worn out from sorting out the jumble of different viewpoints and outside intrusions upon the narrative. As is the case with many a family holiday, one may feel that one needs a vacation to recover from the vacation.

From editorial assistant to copy editor to freelance travel writer, Alice Stephens has had a long and varied career working with the written word. She recently completed a historical novel set in Nagasaki, Japan.

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