It is a bit difficult to get into the rhythm of Mark Haddon’s The Red House, but readers who stick with Haddon to the end will be well rewarded for their persistence. The book focuses on eight central characters, all of them related either by blood or marriage, who are sharing a vacation home in the English countryside for a week of getting acquainted/reacquainted. Richard, a wealthy physician, and his sister Angela have been estranged for a number of years. Prompted by the recent death of their mother, Richard would like to reconcile with Angela and her family. Accompanying Angela to the rented Herefordshire house is Dominic, her husband, and their three children: Alex (17), Daisy (16), and Benjy (8). Richard brings his second wife, Louisa, and Louisa’s 16-year-old daughter, Melissa.
The Red House is divided into eight sections, beginning on the Friday everyone arrives, and ending on the following Friday morning when the frazzled families depart for home -an organized and logical way to subdivide the story. However, the narrative is not that straightforward. The off-putting bit stems from the manner in which Haddon introduces each of his main characters by allotting each a random stream-of-consciousness paragraph of their own. Before meeting the characters in any context, the reader is suddenly placed inside the heads of eight very different people. Thankfully, although Haddon continues this approach to the last page, the characters will eventually become distinct, perhaps even clearer and better defined than if he had taken a more direct approach with them.
Eight people share the same red house, but each seems to be very much alone, harboring individual concerns that have very little to do with anyone around them. This is not particularly surprising about the three teens, but their parents seem to be every bit as insulated as Alex, Daisy, and Melissa. Even little Benjy, a precocious little boy, is happy to exist in his own world – a world in which he is a highly effective little warrior/death machine.
Angela is feeling the melancholy of her mother’s death and questions the strength of her marriage; her husband feels himself to be an inadequate provider, especially when he compares himself to Angela’s doctor-brother; Richard is uneasy about the aftermath of a surgery that left a little girl paralyzed and is unsure that he will keep his medical license; and his new wife is concerned that he might learn the details of her sordid past. As for the teens, of course, all they think about is sex – even when they try not to.
The Red House is a first rate domestic drama. It is certainly not a feel-good book, but it offers insights into the isolation and self-centeredness that so many feel even when surrounded by “loved ones,” especially loved ones who feel just as isolated as them.
Despite the likely temptation to do so, do not give up on this one too early because, as soon as the characters become recognizable as individual voices, it has a lot to say.