on 8 June 2012
At first i thought I was in for a humdrum tale of domestic angst amongst the Boden-wearing classes, but I soon realised there was a whole lot more to this story. I found it gripping, by the end - and the best yet of Haddon's books. It is very cleverly done - the author handles the constantly switching narrative point of view very skilfully, and his dissection of the emotions and foibles of each character is superb. None of the characters is immediately likeable but all the same I found myself feeling sympathy and empathy. There were tears! A great read, all in all. Just don't read it when you are on holiday with your extended family in a remote cottage.
on 8 May 2013
A week in a holiday cottage shared by eight relations, seen from their varying perspectives. The trials of being with one's family: those people in our lives that we didn't choose! The damage that's been done, and the anger and resentment. And the selective and unreliable nature of memory: how two people can look back and remember the same event quite differently. These are some of the themes of Mark Haddon's remarkable third novel, which confirms his status as an exceptionally talented author who always produces the goods - some achievement, after the runaway success of the debut that had readers wondering if he could ever write anything as good again. Well, he could, and he has (twice).
As always, Haddon gets inside each of his characters and opens them up like an anatomist, dissecting their behaviour and motives, and recording their pains and triumphs. As it says on the jacket, he has "a true understanding of the human heart". (So true, in fact, that it might be unsettling, having him as one of your relatives! That acuity of perception; you could get away with nothing.) His observations on children in particular are wonderfully good, and the four in this novel will tug at your heartstrings: the unhappy girl who doesn't know how to be kind; the late-adolescent boy obsessed with sex, rivalry and the need to impress; his sister's struggle to come to terms with something that has turned her to religion for comfort; and the little boy who is still very much a child, but has to deal with the complicated manoeuvres of those older than him, when all he wants to do is have fun.
The story is told in small chunks, switching quickly from one perspective to another: a structure likely to annoy me, but it didn't. I just loved the concentrated bursts of energetic writing; it struck me that most other authors would have taken twice as many pages to tell me half as much. And yet he takes the time to offer the most lyrical passages of description, and his writing in this respect is quite breathtaking. Yes, it was often a challenge, determining who was the subject of a particular chunk of text, and many of the cultural references went over my head, but when storytelling is as good as this, I can bear it.
As complex as human relationships themselves, this book is both light and heavy, funny and serious, mundane and gripping. My goodness, the extraordinary richness of it: vivid and visual prose, like beautiful poetry, but a hundred times more satisfying. A highly unusual novel, and utterly brilliant.
Brother and Sister Richard and Angela have had little contact since the death of their mother some years ago. In the mean time Richard has remarried and in the process gained a teenage 'daughter'. A self assured hospital consultant, he decides to try to reconnect with his sister and her family.
Angela teaches, while her husband Dominic, once a successful composer of ad tunes is now working in a book store; they have two teenage children, Alex and Daisy, and eight year old Benjy. Angela and Dominic's marriage is shaky, Alex is loosing respect or his father and Daisy has joined a church and has cut herself off from her old friends.
When Richard invites Angela and her family to join them for a week in a rented cottage on the Welsh border it is with mixed feelings that they accept. The Red House is an account of their holiday. Taken day by day it is a series of episodes from their interactions, peppered with their private thoughts and worries, along with occasional snippets from their chosen various reading matter.
The account flits from person to person with rapid frequency, and is occasionally interspersed with descriptive paragraphs of their isolated location often with little regard for proper sentence structure - this is not a criticism, just an observation, but I hope it conveys something of the slightly unusual construction of this novel.
Over the course of the week we observe the individual characters, and far from all come out of the experience with shinning colours. The otherwise self confident Richard has his eyes opened as to how he treats others, and his previously adoring new wife sees him in a new light. Their self-centred daughter may or may not be a better person after the events of the week. Angela may be able finally to put an old ghost to rest; Daisy might at last have seen the light regarding her adopted religion while she discovers something about herself that shocks her (even if everyone else seems OK with it). Dominic resolves to try to make amends for past mistakes as he decides to work to strengthen his family, but it might be too late as regards his son Alex, who of all is the one who despite the occasional misjudgement is the one who really proves himself over the holiday, the holiday he entered as a boy and comes out almost a man. Benjy's charming innocence and very boyish interests provide much entertainment, and the obvious love his two older siblings have for him is delightful.
Once one is used to the staccato and sometimes confusing approach, this quickly becomes a captivating read.
on 8 November 2012
I loved the first book, but to say I was disappointed with this is an understatement. It's not so much the plot, an inconsequential tale of an estranged brother and sister and their respective families (dysfunctional, naturally) going to Herefordshire for a week in a cottage. A few skeletons emerge from cupboards, but no one seems to really change much. It's not so much the characters, though it's hard to remember who's who a lot of the time, so sketchily are they drawn. It's not so much the wealth of irrelevant and unnecessary realistic detail - is Exile on Main Street the best double album ever, or is it Physical Graffiti etc (try The White Album, Mark.) It's more all of this together, combined with an artsy, convoluted writing style that made me want to give up plenty of times. But I ploughed on, hoping the admittedly slight plot would make up for the pretentiousness of the style. It didn't.
It remeinded me a little of Alice Thomas Ellis, with more up-to-date characters. And boy is it up to date. It practically thrusts its modernity down your throat. You know, short paragraphs that skip from character to character; an ever changing tense, sometimes past, sometimes present. Ruminations and stream-of consciousness (not that that's modern) and that wealth of realistic detail that seems there more to pad the whole thing out. No speech marks, naturally. Those useful little squiggles seem to have little place in a modern book intended to be artistic. Instead we have italics. Whatever next? How about all nouns in bold? Really, I get so tired of writers messing with the form instead of letting the story, the characters, the description do the job. It's not as though Mark Haddon can't write - I just don't understand why he had to wrap up this rather humdrum tale in such artiness. I don't often give a book only one star, but this really brassed me off.
on 18 May 2012
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.
on 24 June 2012
I'm afraid that having loved 'A Spot of Bother' and 'Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time', I found this novel a severe disappointment. Too much head-hopping, too many attempts to be 'literary', too many 'insights' into the banal and irrelevant thoughts of the various characters, this was all far too po-faced and self-consciously literary for me. I suppose it's matter of taste, but I'd have much preferred it if the situation/interaction of the characters had been developed in the form of a gently satirical, social novel, the kind that Alison Lurie does so well. As it is, I can't really warm to this kind of literary experimentation/stream of consciousness; it was fine when Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf did it, but that, in my view, should have been the end of the matter. But no doubt others will feel differently!
on 5 September 2014
Initially I was annoyed at the style, putting conversations in italics instead of proper conversations, but I got used to it. Then I was annoyed about the flitting around between characters so that you didn't know who was talking or thinking at any given moment, but I eventually got used to that too. I guess I'm old-skool. When I had got over being annoyed I settled into what turned out to be a remarkably good book, even though in my early annoyance I did in fact put it down. I'm glad I picked it up again.
I thought of it as a play in many ways, except that it would never work as a play because most of it happens inside the character's heads, but it played out like that, and I loved that the characters were all coming to terms with their own flaws when in fact they initially set out to come to terms with each others. It was an extremely sensitive telling of coming together whilst falling apart, and brilliantly handled.
The reality of life is that we come into this world alone, and we leave it alone, and sometimes we need to be reminded that in fact, in our own private thoughts, we live it alone too. What was also illustrated was the effect of childhood memories being totally inaccurate, almost as if we play a game of Chinese Whispers with our own memory throughout the years and end up with a completely different version of events. It is maybe a book about the loneliness of the individual without that being immediately obvious from the outset. It isn't apparent from the style or subject, but this is proper literature with a real depth.
I was going to give it 4 stars, but I've just talked myself into giving it 5.
I'm still irritated by the style, but I guess rules are meant to be broken.
on 3 June 2013
I have to agree with many of the other reviewers. Having enjoyed Curious Incident, I was looking forward to this but life is too short to endure something so difficult to read! I hate the way he brings in the characters. It's supposed to be clever but it is just pretentious. It's also depressing in a sort of attempt at a 'modern' portrayal of a 'modern' dysfunctional family - families. Doesn't ring true.
on 11 July 2012
I loved Mark Haddon's best seller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I haven't read any of his other books, but based on that one read I was eager to pick up his latest - The Red House.
Richard and Angela are brother and sister living in England. They rarely see each other, but following the death of their mother, Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his sister, her husband and their three children to vacation with him for a week in the country side. Richard has recently remarried and his new wife and step daughter will also be there.
You can see lots of angst and fodder for thought in just the set up - estrangement, death, grief, family squabbles and more. Angela and her family are rife with problems.
I've had this book for a bit and have been picking it up and putting it down, unable to consume it at prolonged sittings. The book is told in a 'stream of conciousness' narrative. Each of the eight characters' thoughts and actions can appear at any time. Many times it's not clear who is speaking - chapters begin with She for example. As I read further and began to know each character and their way of thinking it became easier to identify the current speaker. But, then sometimes Haddon throws in passages from a book someone is reading or lists of things that really have no bearing on anything.
The Red House has been leaping onto bestseller lists everywhere. I find myself feeling a bit lost, like the kid who doesn't get the joke. For I found Red House disconcerting, disturbing and demoralizing by turns. Although I agree that Haddon's explorations of his characters' desires, needs and wants are quite intimate and thought provoking, I could only take so much at a sitting. Hence, the length of time it took me to finish the book.
There's no denying that Haddon has explored family dysfunction in great depth with an inventive vehicle to carry those observations. However, there seemed to be no resolution from first page to last. The characters are still nursing the same angst as they were in the beginning. I realize that not every book needs to have a happy ending or ends all tied up, but I felt no sense of satisfaction on turning the last page. Rather, just relief that I had finished.
This is a review of the audio book.
I feel sorry for author Mark Haddon when it comes to any book he writes after Curious Incident because that book was so original, so fresh and funny and clever and moving that it is always going to be a hard act to follow. I tried not to keep comparing this story to that one while I was listening to it, but to be honest if this had been by anyone other than Haddon, I probably wouldn't have persevered to the end.
The Red House tells the story of siblings Angela and Richard, her family - husband Dominic and children Alex, Daisy and Benjie, and Dominic's second wife Louisa and her teenage daughter Melissa. They all go on holiday together after the death of Angela and Richard's alcoholic mother, with both adult siblings hoping to patch up their relationship. The three older children all have 'issues' and little Benjie is a fairly typical 8 year old and probably the best drawn character in the book.
The trouble with this book is not that very little happens, it's that the characters are so unsympathetic, dull and cliched that they're embarrassing to listen to. I didn't actually mind the two men, although they are so similar it's hard to tell them apart, it doesn't help that the writing is very fragmented, you jump from perspective to perspective all the time which makes it confusing at times, particularly when there are no really clear voices. This also made it very difficult for the narrator, who I think did a mainly good job. What irritated me the most was the teenage girls who are so one dimensional compared to real teenagers (I have four) that they are completely unbelievable. Melissa, who is supposed to be the edgy, difficult one, is a cardboard cutout. If you can't empathise, there's no reason to keep reading, or listening.
The second really annoying thing is Haddon's tendency to use lists instead of descriptions, and brands to categorise a person. This strategy worked fantastically well in Curious but it doesn't work here. IIn a second-hand bookshop, for example, he lists the diverse books on the shelf. To give us a picture of Melissa, he lists the tunes on her iPod. I feel this is supposed to be clever, I just found it made me want to scream. Especially when he gets the female soundtracks so very wrong.
Third problem is Angela's stillborn baby, Karen, who haunts her. Horrible descriptions of what it's like to have a child with congenital abnormalities. He describes what people think it is like until they've been through it.
I know this book is getting a lot of attention, but I'm afraid I don't think it's good or clever. Read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time instead. That one's brilliant.