The Relatives Dysfunction – ‘The Red House’ by Mark Haddon

‘The Red House’ is a difficult novel to define.  I’ll begin by suggesting that if it hadn’t been written by million-copy selling author Mark Haddon, then it would never have been published in this form.  Whilst it contains some beautiful writing, and razor sharp observations about family life, the novel’s style is sure to alienate some readers. Me included.

I have no problem with multiple point-of-view novels (I loved James Smythe’s recent novel ‘The Testimony’, which uses them to great effect) but here the changes are so rapid they become annoying. Sometimes the switch occurs mid-paragraph.  Much of the first part of the novel is written in short staccato sentences, giving the impression of a stream of consciousness. It conveys the maelstrom of family life, but doesn’t make for a particularly comfortable read.  Dialogue is written in italics, in the middle of text, but then so are thoughts, and occasionally I mistook one for the other.  All this, combined with some peculiar supernatural posturings that add little to the overall novel, is sure to put off many readers who enjoyed ‘Curious Incident’.

The story revolves around a family holiday. Richard and Angela have been estranged for fifteen years and are becoming reacquainted after the death of their mother.  Richard is successful and childless, married to his second wife and has a sixteen year old step-daughter.  Angela is a teacher. Her marriage is moribund and she has three children (roughly 17,15 & 8).  There is also the spectre of Karen, Angela’s stillborn baby, who would have turned eighteen during the week of the holiday.

Like all families they have their problems, their secrets and inconsistencies.  The characters are solid and believable, although one or two stray into caricature sometimes.  Haddon has a wonderful grasp of the strength and power of the parent-children bond, which any parent will recognise, and it is here in which the novel’s main strength lies.  He also conveys how mundane life can be.  There are lots of references to real-world things, brands, films & muisc, much more so than most contemporary novels.  On one level I found this annoying, but I think Haddon is showing that the backdrop to most people’s lives in the UK is broadly the same.

My biggest barrier to enjoyment of this novel is that its players aren’t particularly likeable.  Haddon seems to have a dim view of humanity.  One passage about siblings, blew me away, but it’s possibly the singularly most depressing thing I’ve ever read.  Haddon seems to be saying, families are dysfunctional, and make you miserable, but they’ve all you’ve got, so make the most of it.  In black and white, this seems like a self-evident truth, but to a father of a young family it makes for a dark read. Family is monotony.

So, how to sum up?  I didn’t really enjoy ‘The Red House’ at all, but in writing about it, I can see its power.  A discomfiting novel filled with deft if depressing observation.  It has a style that frustrates, but is a novel that  illuminates the pressures faced by families across the country. Mark Haddon is a talented writer, unafraid to break with convention.  Whilst I find it difficult to recommend, I think ‘The Red House’ is an important book written by a fine author, and on balance, worth investigating.

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