Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Red House (Mark Haddon)

I read one of Mark Haddon's previous novels (his absolutely wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), so I was looking forward to this new book. The Red House tells the story of an English family on vacation in the countryside in the titular red house. The narrative switches between all eight characters, and what ensues is a week of dramatic realizations and revelations as the family struggles to bring itself together.

Richard and Angela are brother and sister, estranged after the death of their mother. Richard, a wealthy, recently-remarried doctor, invites his sister and her family on vacation in an attempt to mend the bond and grow closer. Angela, who took care of her mother as she declined, holds a serious grudge against Richard, almost never visited their mother and was still her favored child. There's a lot of wild drama: an affair, hallucinations, and a conflict between religion and sexuality, to name a few.

A lot of the negative reviews that initially put me off from reading the book focused on how confusing the narrative switches were, but Haddon does a great job plotting out the thoughts and feelings of these characters, and his writing sparkles as he does so. Each switch is presented just by giving a line break, no new heading or boldfaced character name. We're left to figure it out, but I never had much trouble, so I'm not sure what the fuss was about. I didn't find the characters to be unoriginal or overly similar, but dynamic and separate. Each of the family members provides us a different facet of seeing their world, of observing the family. We want the best for this clan, but it's fun to watch them fall apart.

There were some times when it was apparent that Haddon was overreaching, when we're presented with snippets of poetry or stream-of-consciousness prose that is not attached to anyone in particular. Moments like these (brief, and not overly common) frustrated me a little because the book would have been fine without them. One thing I don't like is an author who can create something wonderful and then feels that it must be embellished and prettified to the point that the work is worse off, but fortunately Mark Haddon didn't go to extremes with this abstract approach.

The Red House is slim (~275 pages), and it's fast read. Great for a summer evening, especially if you love family dramas (it's my guilty pleasure).

My rating: 3.5/5
The Red House on Goodreads
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