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The Red House


The Red House

You might not expect much from THE RED HOUSE based on a summary of the plot. Two estranged adult siblings get together with their respective families for a vacation six weeks after the death of their mother. Tempers rise, and grievances are aired. Nothing I haven’t read before, you might say, and you’d be right. But what separates this fine novel from lesser domestic dramas are the verve and inventiveness of Mark Haddon’s writing. No one who has read THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME will be surprised to learn that Haddon’s gift for well-chosen detail turns what might have been an unexceptional tale of familial discord into a thrilling experience.

"No one who has read THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME will be surprised to learn that Haddon’s gift for well-chosen detail turns what might have been an unexceptional tale of familial discord into a thrilling experience."

Angela and Richard haven’t seen much of one another since they became adults. When Richard, a wealthy radiologist, invites Angela and her family to a vacation rental on the Welsh border, Angela considers declining. She resents Richard’s success; her husband, Dominic, wrote jingles for washing powders and chocolate bars and now works at Waterstones. But the couple can’t afford a vacation of their own, so they reluctantly accept.

Richard divorced his first wife, Jennifer, many years earlier and is now married to Louisa, who had more than a few lovers before she and Richard met. Louisa has a 16-year-old daughter, Melissa, who would rather listen to her iPod than spend a week with relatives she barely knows. She’s also worried about repercussions from a school incident: she and some friends passed around a photo of a female classmate having oral sex with a young man. The classmate has accused them of bullying. A couple of days into the vacation, Melissa learns that the classmate has tried to kill herself.

She’s not the only one in the family worried about punishment. Richard is being investigated for a botched medical procedure that has put a nine-year-old girl into a wheelchair. He’s convinced that he did nothing wrong, but not as convinced that he will have a career to return to when he gets home.

Angela’s family has its share of concerns, too. Unbeknownst to Angela, Dominic is having an affair. Their 16-year-old daughter, Daisy, has joined a church, not out of religious conviction but out of a desire to run from her personality. Benjy, the eight-year-old, plays ninja games when he isn’t obsessing about questions such as: What would happen to us --- and our television --- if Mom and Dad died at the same time? Alex, the oldest, is a history buff whose fondness for sex is what you’d expect from a 17-year-old. As the vacation begins, he fantasizes about Melissa until he realizes that he’s even more attracted to her mother.

Angela’s story is perhaps the most painful of all. She is still grieving the loss of her first child, a daughter who died during childbirth and who would have celebrated her 18th birthday on the upcoming Thursday. Angela broods about the loss throughout the vacation: waking in the middle of the night, staring into the dark, wondering about the type of person her daughter might have become.

Readers who despise family dramas probably stopped reading a few paragraphs ago. But this isn’t just any family drama. Haddon’s clipped style infuses this conventional material with edginess and tension. He constantly shifts point of view, sometimes within the same paragraph, to give you each character’s perspective. This isn’t a novel for readers who like to get into one character’s head and stay there, but for those willing to adapt to Haddon’s style, the rewards are great.

THE RED HOUSE isn’t a perfect novel, whatever that may be. The children, especially the three teens, are more vivid than the adults. Richard and Dominic are less interesting than their wives. The shifts in perspective work most of the time, but occasionally they feel like style for style’s sake. The narrative arc is so compelling, however, and Haddon’s writing such a joy to read that you forgive the novel its imperfections.

Near the end of the book, Haddon writes of Richard, “He had expected something to be resolved or mended or rediscovered over the last few days.” Your appreciation of THE RED HOUSE will depend in part on how neatly you like your story ends tied up at the end of a book. Haddon doesn’t resolve the conflicts he sets up, thank goodness. And that’s one of the many wonders of this novel: the author’s refusal to slap a tidy ending onto this tale of messy lives.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on June 15, 2012

The Red House
by Mark Haddon

  • Publication Date: March 12, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307949257
  • ISBN-13: 9780307949257