Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Red House, by Mark Haddon

You have to feel some empathy for an author whose reviews seem always to start with a mention of his first (adult) novel because it was a singular accomplishment. Such is the case with Mark Haddon, who to date has had difficulty matching the achievement of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, written in the convincing voice of an autistic boy. The Red House has many more voices--the eight members of an extended British family who are spending a week together on a country holiday--though the eight seem to add up to a not particularly fresh depiction of family dysfunction.

Angela, in the wake of her mother's death, has found that her pain over a stillborn daughter has bubbled up to haunt her 18 years after the event. Her brother Richard, from whom she has been estranged for many years, has volunteered to pay for this holiday in an attempt at reconciliation. Angela brings with her husband Dominick, an underemployed jingle writer who is having an affair; daughter Daisy, who is driving everyone mad with her recent enthusiastic adoption of Christianity; horny teenage son Alex; and eight-year-old Benjy. With Richard are his second wife Louisa and her sullen daughter Melissa. Over the course of their week in the red house, their problems only seem to multiply. And, realistically but unsatisfyingly, nothing is resolved by the time the vacation is over and the book ends.

The narration switches fairly rapidly from character to character; listening to the audiobook was challenging, as it was difficult to discern when the voice was changing. Although the reader (Maxwell Caulfield) changed his voice for the different characters, the differences were quite subtle. In addition, Haddon from time to time inserts descriptive/metaphorical passages: for example: "The witching hour. Deep in the satches of hte night, when the old and the weak and the sick let go and the membrane between this world and the other stretches almost to nothing."   I found these passages confusing because I couldn't tell if they were supposed to be linked to a particular character (they didn't sound like the characters) or were floating observations from an omniscient narrator (and, if so, why). Perhaps this might somehow have been clearer in print. 

The reviews of The Red House have been mixed; I join the ranks of those who found the book disappointing. 

Favorite passage:
Reality. It meant nothing. It was the story that mattered. The story that held you together. The satisfaction of turning those pages, going back to favorite scenes over and over. A book at bedtime. The reassurance of it, saying "this happened, then that happened." Saying, "This is me." But what is her story? Losing the plot. The deep truths hidden in the throw-away phrase. 

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