The Red House
By Mark Haddon
Doubleday June 2012
From the library
Angela is invited to spend a week at a country house with her brother Richard. The siblings are not close, and hope that the week together will be a way for their families (and the siblings themselves) to strengthen relationships and healing old wounds. Angela brings her husband Dominic, teenagers Alex and Daisy, and their young son Benjy. Richard is accompanied by his new wife Louisa and her teenage daughter Melissa. Author Mark Haddon sets the stage for grand family drama, new discoveries and the pain of old secrets.
This is my first time reading a novel by Mark Haddon. I have had The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime on my to-read list for a long time. Someone wrote an intriguing review of Haddon’s new novel and I hopped into the queue at the library. I found Haddon’s style confusing and awkward. There are a lot of characters in the two families and each one gets some time. This means that by the time you are really interested in one, the perspective has changed. It often has multiple people's perspectives on the same page. Then Haddon is fond of throwing in excerpts from books, dreams, the past, and seemingly random ruminations. It can be confusing at times to figure out who the narrator is or what the stream of consciousness or book selection has to do with the story at large. The novel opens like this:
“Cooling towers and sewage farms. Frinstock, Charlbury, Ascott-under-Wychwood. Seventy miles per hour, the train unzips the fields. Two gun-gray lines beside the river’s meander. Flashes of sun on the hammered metal. Something of stream about it, even now. Hogwarts and Adlestrop. The night mail crossing the border. Cheyenne sweeping down from the right. Delta blues from the boxcar. Somewhere, those secret points that might just switch and send you curving into a world of uniformed porters and great-aunts and summers at the lake.”
Ultimately, I found this novel to be disappointing. I don’t mind working to understand a book, but I was working hard and finding myself underwhelmed anyway. I found myself ambivalent about characters who seemed to take one step forward and two steps back. Each time I thought that they were making progress towards strengthening a bond or overcoming a personal flaw, they run right back to where they started. Nothing really seems to change for these people – the same ghosts they experienced before (sometimes literally) are the same ones leaving the red vacation house with them.
It often feels as if Haddon is just throwing literary tricks at the wall to see what sticks. There is so much going on here that it is difficult to figure out where to begin or what parts of the novel really matter. I wish that Haddon had used his pages to take his characters through growth and change instead of filling the pages with too many literary tricks.