Curiously, my spot of bother with The Red House

16 Jul

Mark Haddon’s latest, The Red House, seems to be in similar territory to A Spot of Bother. Family and marital dysfunction,  characters with baggage, emotional basket-cases for treatment, the problems of youth – the problems of any age for that matter. We meet Richard and Angela, middle-aged and rather estranged brother and sister ‘reunited’ by their mother’s death. The afflent Doctor Richard suggests the two families have a week’s rural cottage holiday to re-bond. Angela’s lacklustre, jobless hubby Dominic plus children – horny, 17year-old jock Alex and God-squad, sexually-confused sister Daisy, 16, and 8 year old smart-but-brittle Benjy  – are all reluctant conscripts to the family fun. Louisa, Richard’s new trophy-wife and her sulky, spoiled precocious daughter Melissa, make up the party .

Throw into the mix the 17year bereavement that has been going on in Angela’s head for a stillborn child and Richard’s guilt for anything that moves making him want to put things right by throwing money and people together, hoping it sort out his past and future – and you have a recipe for the reader to watch the hurly-burly done and wait to see who’s lost and won.

The answer is no one, really. Possibly the Red House itself with its stoic acceptance of those who have owned or rented the place. Or perhaps Karen, the dead child who has grown up in Angela’s head and whose maturing voice serves as a commentary on the folly of those who live. Whatever the case Haddon’s cleverness left me confused. The narrative lurched from one pair of characters to another as the family dynamic veered this way and that – Richard v Alex, a machismo match; Daisy and Louisa, teenage neuroses squared; Louisa and Angela, mothers vying for the I’m more vulnerable that you badge. The partnerships shifted througout and Benjy was not to be left out – he crucially discovers that Daddy Dominic is having an affair with a yummy mummy. Whenever the narrative flags, which is rare with Haddon, the partners change on the floor and new life is breathed into the dance.

The ‘chapters’ are delineated by the days of the holiday. The stylistic innovation after the breakthrough ‘voice’ of Curious Incident is the surreal departures where memories, dreams, the part-articulated conscience of each character and voices of the undead of the house and Angela’s daughter coalesce into a chorus which, supposedly, underpins the rather more obvious operation of plot. I wanted to shout – just get on with it at the author. I’m still not sure if I have misread the whole thing but I yearned for the simplicity of one or two main characters so I could follow a central thread and not have to basket-weave several changing strands at the same time – and all under water. The focus of MH’s first two novels have been so strongly on one central character that an intensity of experience – and humour – has resulted. Not to mention a reader-sympathy that built page on page.

Now Mark Haddon remains an author whose prose crackles along compulsively. In this case, however, his plot and characters didn’t. I cared less about them at the end than I did at the beginning. Alex is me at 17 – all testosterone and faux Oedipal angst; highly unpleasant as I now recall. Melissa is just an unpleasant bitch; Daisy not much better, less of a bully but too needy by half. Benjy a wimp and all four adults variously unattractive. The house is symbolic and, clearly, the Welsh borders a brooding delight for the towny crew, with the hapless Richard succumbing to exposure when he injudiciously tries to out-outdoor pursuit Alex.

There remains enough of those observational nail-hits to make readers of all ages recognise themselves, a past or present situation or the lives of others. Several smiles and some laughs too. Haddon has a sure touch in these categories but those who inhabit his Red House on this holiday found me uncaring of what would happen to them after their journey home.

I liked them all rather less having known them for a few short hours.

One Response to “Curiously, my spot of bother with The Red House”

  1. Christine Newman July 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    Actually rather enjoyed this Paul! Just read it in France but this was fresh from seeing Mark Haddon speak at the London Literary Festival at the South Bank before going away. He was an engaging speaker and a very likable bloke and I liked his narrative and the way the characters were in and out of favour with each other. Also liked the symbolism of the willow pattern in the book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: