The Red House by Mark Haddon
|The Red House by Mark Haddon
|Category: Literary Fiction
|Reviewer: Sue Magee
|Summary: Two dysfunctional familes renewing their relationship after a long gap spend a week together in a cottage. It richly repays the effort you'll need to get into the story.
|Date: May 2012
|Publisher: Jonathan Cape
|External links: Author's website
Richard and Angela - brother and sister - are reunited at their mother's funeral. Richard is well-to-do and recently remarried with a teenage stepdaughter. Angela is the main breadwinner in her family as her husband scrapes a wage by working in Waterstones and somehow they and their three children get by. Richard is aware that he hasn't much left in the way of family and tries to build some bridges with Angela by way of offering that the eight of them should have a week's holiday in a cottage on the Welsh borders. So, there's four adults, four children and a lot of emotional baggage. Oh, and there's Karen - Angela's stillborn daughter who would have been eighteen that week.
I've often wondered how Mark Haddon must feel about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It brought him fame and critical acclaim but his work before 2003 faded into insignificance and everything since has sat in its shadow. A Spot of Bother was good, if not brilliant, but it was always going to be judged in relation to its older brother. The Red House might just change that.
A warning (rather than a criticism) first of all. It's not an easy book to get into. It's written from the point of view of the main characters and their dialogue and thought processes appear without introduction, coalescing and separating, joining with literature and music and even the atmosphere of the house itself and the forbidding landscape in which it sits. For the first fifty or so pages I wondered if I was going to be able to get into this book - I kept having to flick back to put a name to a voice, to locate them within a family - but then I relaxed into the rhythms of the book as the characters came off the page.
And what characters they are. I found them difficult to like, but for once it didn't matter. Richard and Angela have very differing memories of their parents - Angela's idealised and Richard's brutally stark as he remembers his abusive father and alcoholic mother. Both have their problems, with Angela's being the more-vividly obvious as the ghost of her dead daughter intrudes on her reality, but Richard has been a stranger to love, either giving or receiving it, all his life. It was Alex who stole the book for me - the teenager coming to terms with his sexuality and who is part child and part man in equal measures. Of them all he's the one I wouldn't have minded spending the afternoon with.
It's an old saying that you choose your friends but not your family and the family reunion has been well-used in literature, but Haddon breathes new life into it. He's never shied away from the difficult subjects and he deals sensitively with a child's burgeoning homosexuality but his real skill, his genius is in his understanding of mental problems, that disassociation between the mind and the brain.
After the first fifty pages it wasn't that I couldn't put the book down - it was that I had no thought of doing so. It's a book which is so right in every small detail but a gem when taken altogether. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
If you haven't read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time you should, but if his book appeals then we think that you might also enjoy The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman and possibly There but for the by Ali Smith.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Red House by Mark Haddon at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Red House by Mark Haddon at Amazon.com.
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