THE RED HOUSE (2012)
Mark Haddon / 272 pages / Jonathan Cape)
We all know what a brilliant, original novel Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is, and although I read that on initial publication way back in 2003, when I was an innocent, fresh-faced fourteen year old, it has stayed with me (the same sadly cannot be said of the innocence or the fresh-face). For some reason I skirted Haddon's 2006 follow up A Spot of Bother, but was drawn to The Red House after hearing it discussed on BBC2's The Review Show. Although the panel were heatedly divided (and let's be honest, most of the reviewers on there are impossible to please), the ambitious premise really appealed; a family holiday in Wales reuniting a brother and sister (along with their partners and kids) who have not seen each other in years recounted from the brilliantly contradictory points-of-view of all eight family members.
Haddon certainly sets himself quite the challenge here but, on the whole, I think he just about pulls it off. Each voice is clearly distinguishable and he devotes equal care and detail to bringing all his characters vividly to life. I am often drawn to stories about dysfunctional families (I can relate), and here the author delivers in spades. The constant shifting of the focal character perspective presents the reader with an almost panoramic warts-and-all view of the two families; and over the eight days that the novel captures (each chapter covers a specific day of the holiday) we learn more and more about them. The preliminary attempted niceties soon fall by the wayside and give way to secrets, deceptions, resentments and traumas. The novel is at its best when exposing the underlying frictions that bubble beneath the surface, and before long you realise (in my case with a certain degree of gleeful relish) that there's a reason these two families previously had nothing to do with each other!
With eight characters to choose from, it is likely that you'll be able to personally align yourself with at least one of them. For me, I could relate to both the confused and fragile Daisy and the directionless and detached Melissa, the two (seemingly completely opposite) teenage girls. In fact, I would argue that Haddon's portrayal of the younger characters is where the book's strength lies as he realises all of them convincingly and realistically; a rarity in contemporary fiction. Admittedly, I found the stream-of-consciousness style originally rather daunting; at times I wasn't totally sure whose thoughts were being related, but I quickly got the hand of it and the device quickly became engaging and effective. It is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf - you could almost call The Red House the modern equivalent of Woolf's To the Lighthouse; but with Nintendos, mobile phones and masturbation. The book has been criticised for a lack of plot, but this was never an issue for me - as far as I'm concerned, plenty happened and I just enjoyed spending a week inside the heads of these people. The short sentences and fast-forward punchy prose abets the jumpy, constantly altering thought processes of the mind. And everybody has had a bad holiday experience like this, surely? The misery, the desperation to go home, the `shop of crap', the Scrabble... Haddon's observations are spot on.
Eight ink blots out of ten; and if anybody out there can tell me whether or not A Spot of Bother is worth a read, any comments in the section below would be much appreciated.