REVIEW by Kat Dawes

NWR Issue 97

The Red House

by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time won him legions of fans for its portrayal of an autistic boy. His latest book is The Red House, a domestic novel about middle class preoccupations — but don’t be put off, because it’s highly enjoyable and extremely perceptive.

The Red House in question is a holiday rental on the Welsh border to which Richard invites his sister Angela after their mother’s death. The two are not close, and the addition of Richard’s second wife Louisa and her princess of a teenager Melissa, plus Angela’s lazy husband Dominic and their kids — sporty, testosterone-filled Alex, religious convert Daisy and eight-year-old Benjy — means the cracks soon appear. There are plenty of family dramas and no one comes out unscathed.

For example, the awful teen Melissa, who you wish would listen to her own more vulnerable side, breaks down and almost turns a corner, but doesn’t quite manage to change. Confused Daisy, on the other hand, realises something profound about her nature — her struggles made me shudder to remember the uncertainty of growing up. Her brother Benjy, happy and boisterous, begins to understand that the adult world can ‘suck’: when practical doctor Richard, who has no kids of his own, kills a poisoned rat, Benjy realises that death isn’t just ‘blowing up Nazi zombies’ in a game, and that his gran might not have gone to a better place. His mother struggles with death too, with the sad story of her stillborn child. I found Alex the least interesting character, but then I’ve never been a teenage boy; I think there will be facets of each character that resonate with different readers, and there is no hero or heroine of the tale.

There’s nothing really life-threatening about any of The Red House’s dramas (with the exception of some hypothermia after an ill-advised mountain run). This is not a thriller with a plot that will keep you up at nights, and it’s not supposed to be; it has a gentler but maybe more profound effect.

Mostly, it’s the interactions and particularly the dialogue, of which Haddon is an absolute master, which reveal the characters to the reader. Stream of consciousness abounds as each character struggles to realign themselves with their new domestic arrangement. The odd realities of making your way through the world are wonderfully detailed here; for example, Richard is mortally afraid of tubing, and an unexpected snarl of pipes outside a building can make him pass out. There are some funny bits too, mostly courtesy of Benjy, but also with Haddon’s spot-on expositions of character. He is ruthless about exposing the vagaries of the human heart with its capacity to make us anything but noble, and Haddon has a wonderful way of making deeply flawed characters still appealing.

The book is simply structured — chronologically linear, with a chapter for each day. Where it can become confusing is that the narrative hops from head to head with few indicators. One minute you’re reading dialogue or action, the next a snippet of something someone’s watching on TV or reading on the train, poems, lists, letters and rather random and contrived philosophical musings about the house itself. If you need to know exactly where you are (the Welsh side of Border Country) and why in a book, this might not be for you, but I enjoyed the variety. One thing I did find exasperating was that all the dialogue was written in italics with no speech marks, which made it very hard to follow.

The story ends as the week’s holiday ends, and you are left wondering what effect each of the revelations will have in the characters’ everyday lives — and it could just as easily be nothing as something. The ending feels like the relief you feel at the end of a family holiday, tinged with sadness and uncertainty. If you’ve ever been forced to spend any extended period of time — excruciating Christmases, weddings, holidays or birthday parties — with a load of people you have little in common with, you will identify with this book; it is thoughtful, unsettling and strangely satisfying.


previous review: The Prince of Wails
next review: Chinaman


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