TITLE: THE RED HOUSE
AUTHOR: MARK HADDON
PUBLISHER: VINTAGE BOOKS
GENRE: GENERAL FICTION
COVER TYPE: PAPER BACK
BLURB FROM THE COVER
Angela and her brother, Richard have spent twenty years avoiding each other. Now, after the death of their mother, they bring their families together for a holiday in a rented house on the Welsh border. Four adults and four children. Seven days of shared meals, log fires, card games and wet walks.
But in the quiet and stillness of the valley, ghosts begin to rise up. The parents Richard thought he had. The parents Angela thought she had. Past and present lovers. Friends, enemies, victims, saviours…
Cooling towers and sewage farms. Finstock, Charlbury, Ascott-under-Wynchwood. Seventy miles per hour, the train unzips the fields. Two gun-grey lines beside the river’s meander. Flashes of sun on the hammered metal. Something of steam about it, even now. Hogwarts and Adlestrop. The night mail crossing the border. Cheyenne sweeping down from the ridge. 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.
I picked The Red House off the shelves at my local library for three reasons. Well four actually. Haddon’s debut novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is one of my favourite novels of recent years. I had no idea he had written anything else. I was curious. I liked the title. I found the sort-of crazy cartoon cover endearing. The blurb on the back cover piqued my interest. I am a sucker for dysfunctional families and weird secrets.
I enjoyed reading The Red House. Haddon doesn’t make this novel as original and interesting as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time but he does a great job of pulling off something absorbing and entertaining yet moving. I thought The Red House was great.
Haddon uses an interesting structure for The Red House. The novel is divided into seven long chapters that cover the days both families stay in the house. Each chapter is split into lots of sections of varying lengths that deal with all the little story threads in the novel. These include Daisy’s struggles with believing she might be gay after her recent conversion to Christianity, Angela struggling to hold onto sanity as the eighteenth birthday of her deformed, miscarried daughter approaches and the anger between Angela and Richard around their very different memories of their parents. The viewpoint changes quite a lot throughout each chapter as Haddon moves in and out of character’s heads. This creates a sort of stream-of-consciousness style that actually works quite well. I didn’t feel lost as the constantly changing viewpoints. Haddon never leaves his reader’s floundering and confused. I knew exactly whose head I was in at all times. I like the way this structure drip fed the story in little chunks and held my attention.
I liked the way Haddon manages to blend everyday lives of his characters with darker subject matter. The Red House focuses on seemingly everyday events you would expect from two families sharing a house together. These include debates about how to spend time, preparing meals and the friction between different family members. Haddon gradually weaves in darker and darker material. These include Angela’s fragile mental state caused by the grief she still feels over the deformed child she miscarried eighteen years before, Melissa facing expulsion from her posh school for helping her friends bully another girl into a suicide attempt and Daisy’s inner conflict when she realises she’s gay and wonders how this will affect her newfound Christianity. I liked the way Haddon blended the dark and fairly light in The Red House.
I really liked the characters in The Red House. I thought Haddon made everyone seem very real and human. None of the characters were perfect or a complete mess. They all had good and bad aspects of their personality. The characters came across as real, flawed humans. I felt I could relate to Daisy the most. She’s recently converted to Christianity. This has caused her a lot of problems at home and school. During the holiday she realises she’s gay when she tries to kiss Melissa. This leads to conflict about whether she actually believes in God turned to religion to avoid dealing with her sexuality. I went through an almost identical experience when I was in my early twenties.
Haddon had an irritating habit of putting his dialogue in italics throughout The Red House. He did this with the internal thoughts of the characters as well. This really jarred and made these sections unnecessarily stand out from the rest of the page and pulled my focus. I hate it when authors do this as it comes across as amateur. It really wasn’t necessary for Haddon to highlight the characters thoughts and the dialogue in this way. There are also random extracts from poems scattered throughout which seemed quite odd and out of place.