Mark Haddon’s writing demonstrates eerie percipience about the intricate web of knots that net families together. Without a trace of sentimentality, without a quiver of hesitation, The Red House draws the reader into the tensions and apprehensions of one such family who, like Tolstoy’s famous summary, are unhappy in their own particular way.
The novel’s constraint is set up when an affluent doctor invites his rather less affluent sister and her family (husband and three children) to join him and his new wife and stepdaughter at an English countryside “vacation” home for a week. The combination of the two families creates a potentially explosive mixture, leavened by humour, grief and desire. Nothing unexpected about that; we have all suffered through such tribal purgatories.
This “ship of fools” model, where a group of people is cloistered in an isolated setting to intensify their polarities, is a well-rehearsed literary device. The strangeness of families – dysfunctional families, feuding families, archetypal families – is an unsurprisingly frequent subject for writers. This is the marrow of life, human connection and disconnection, deceit, despair and disagreement, all amplified by shared DNA.
The plot of The Red House? Isolated together in this remote house on “vacation,” and with the catalyst of enforced family intimacy, every character endures a personal confrontation and epiphany, brought about simply by staying together in the same house. The action comprises walks and runs in the hills, visits to a tourist town and the necessary torture of family dinners.
In fact, the actions that the characters bring with them are more important than what they do or avoid doing on vacation. Of the adults, one is having an affair, one is struggling with a sense of futility, one is trying to conceal her past and one is grieving for a lost child. Of the children, one is in trouble for bullying, one is lusting after every girl in sight, one is using religion to avoid facing her sexual orientation and one is afraid of the monsters in the dark. Over the week’s holiday, all these secrets are held up to harsh family scrutiny.
This summary sounds too simple. In the hands of a lesser writer, the story could have taken a banal direction, or simply repeated the complications expected of a family chronicle. But Mark Haddon, whose previous novel was the bestselling The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is not an ordinary writer. The Red House showcases his deft command of action and event, his perfect-pitch dialogue, and his incisive depiction of individual characters no matter what their age or gender.
The novel is told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, but through the consciousness of all the characters, competing and amplifying viewpoints that together form a welter of thoughts and emotions and reactions. This dissonance becomes the score of the narrative, cacophonous but engaging. It’s as if the reader is buried right within the bosom of this family, and can be engrossed in constructing their many furtive fragments into a completed jigsaw puzzle.
Most effective is the friction between adults and children, how their two worlds cross mostly in discipline or accident. The adults, riding the waves of their already established and forfeited lives, perform regret and futility with a redeemable vehemence.
The children are the most persuasive characters. The sophisticated but terrified stepdaughter, Melissa, reveals a wonderful sense of the modern teenager, her “sheen and sneer” utterly compelling. The fumbling but physically powerful Alex compacts all of incipient male craving. His younger sister Daisy struggles with the different temptations of faith and attraction. And best of all is Benjy (a reference to Benjy Compson, of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?), the youngest, 8, and so clear-eyed about what he experiences that he becomes, without pretension or strain, the group’s oracle.
The modern family’s tools – cell phones, running shoes, microwaves and video games – do not seem intrusive, but natural, part of how humans fumble with meaning in this technologically burdened culture. Their isolation at the rather shabby and certainly haunted “vacation” home performs a purgation and absolution not possible in their regular place or routine.
Throughout, Haddon voices different meditations on the nature of families, of houses, of siblings, of the countryside, and of vacations. On time, he writes, “What every child knows and every adult forgets, the glacial movement of the watched clock, pluperfects turning slowly into cosines turning slowly into the feeding of the five thousand. School holidays of which we remember only mending bikes and Garry Holler killing the frog, the featureless hours between gone forever.” How quickly we forget. How strangely we remember.
Despite its rather obvious conceit, this novel is an impossible-to-stop read that plunges the reader into a completely convincing world. The ultimate fixture of this group portrait rewards the reader’s concentrated gaze with a tender puzzlement more fulfilling than any neat resolution. For families, there are no settlements or conclusions, only acquiescence, fond if difficult relinquishments.
Haddon’s tone is flawless, so compassionate and detailed and precise that this novel beguiles without cloying, illuminates without demystifying. All happy families may be alike, but oh, how wonderful to witness the myriad unhappiness of the others, conjured by a virtuoso wordsmith.
Aritha van Herk lives and writes in Calgary.