'The Red House': Looking for the heart of family in a narcissistic age
British writer Mark Haddon's "The Red House" follows several members of a family as they try to live with and love each other in our attention-deficit age.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Red House'
by Mark Haddon
Doubleday, 264 pp., $25.95
British writer Mark Haddon sprang on the literary scene in 2003 with "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," a novel about an autistic boy who solves a crime while not comprehending the emotions that led to it. The book was an international best-seller, and deservedly so.
Haddon's latest work of fiction, "The Red House," is another cup of English tea altogether. The story itself, like "Curious Incident," explores relationships. But in the latest book, the hobbled perspective of a lone narrator is ditched in favor of a constantly shifting point of view. The actions and thoughts of each character build the story like a bunch of multicolored blocks.
The scene is set when Richard, a successful doctor from Edinburgh, invites his sister Angela, a schoolteacher with whom he's had scant contact, for a week's holiday at a rented farmhouse on the Welsh border. He brings his new wife and stepdaughter. She brings her husband and three kids.
In the course of their time together, Richard and Angela air their grievances with each other, and their families tolerate each other, more or less. The outward drama is muted, relatively speaking, and the real action takes place in the silences and the minds of the red house's occupants.
Richard and Angela recently lost their mother, an alcoholic who proved a burden to both of them. Richard paid the bills from afar while Angela did the legwork.
"I visited her every week for five years," Angela tells her brother. "And the person she really wanted was you."
But somehow time has softened that hurt, and each sibling has more pressing worries. For Richard, it's a wheelchair-bound patient whose condition has precipitated a malpractice suit against him. He's unsure about his future with his new wife, Louisa, and only dimly aware that her daughter, Melissa, is a certifiable mean girl whose bullying threatens to catch up with her. Angela, meanwhile, has spent 18 years mourning her stillborn daughter, turning normal grief into an obsession. Her husband, Dominic, is trying to keep the lid on the mistress he acquired in a weak moment.
Angela's surviving children live in their own worlds: teenagers Alex and Daisy stuck on sexual fantasies and religion, respectively, and young Benjy absorbed with imaginary beasts and warriors — that is, until this poor lad looks at his dad's cellphone and is pulled into a different reality because "the pull of adult secrets is too strong."
What Haddon gives us in "The Red House" is a chaotic but truthful portrait of what family means in this narcissistic age: less a cohesive whole than a group of individuals bumping against each other with their own needs, disappointments and small — emphasis on the small — victories. But hasn't it ever been thus?
The writer peppers the story with allusions to Greek myth and historical events plus contemporary brand names — Corn Flakes, Leatherman, Doc Martens — to recreate the mashup that exists in the modern mind. Yet a timeless quality pervades this set piece.
The "red house" of the title swells to become a very big tent embracing any group of individuals united by blood or marriage, each of them spinning outward and yet tethered together by a thin but essential bond.
Confronting his father about his mistress, the teenage Alex is hard and unforgiving. Yet a peek inside his head shows how complicated his feelings really are:
"His father is lazy and weak and selfish but he stands between Alex and something that is cold and vast and dark and utterly inhuman. He realizes that when he dies his parents will no longer be there to hold him. He is genuinely alone for the first time in his life."
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer.