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Book Review: The Red House by Mark Haddon

Let me say at the outset that I am an agonizingly slow reader. It generally takes me about the same amount of time to read a book as it would to write one. To have received a book on Christmas Day and have it finished by New Year’s Day speaks buckets about the appeal of that book. As promised here is a review of Mark Haddon’s The Red House. I absolutely loved this book.

Book Review The Red HouseFinishing a good book is bittersweet. One races towards the last page all the while wishing that the end could be postponed just a little longer. I fully lost myself in Haddon’s world. His use of language was elegant and fulfilling, and the construction of the story was wonderfully inventive, at least for me. And I was sorry to see it come to an end.

The book is about the bringing together of two families for a week in the countryside somewhere near the English/Welsh border. Adult siblings Angela and Richard who have barely spoken in fifteen years agree to a joint vacation after burying their mother. Richard offers it as an opportunity to reconnect with what is left of the family. Richard is a doctor who’s first marriage failed and has recently remarried to Louisa gaining a tough as nails 16-year-old stepdaughter, named Melissa, as part of the bargain.

Offa's Dyke by Pete Buckley
Richard’s sister, Angela, is a teacher and is married to Dominic an out of work musician. Together they have three children: athletic Alex, age 17; born-again-Christian Daisy, age 16 and the ever self-absorbed and imaginative Benjy, who is eight years old.

Tensions and secrets are slowly revealed through Haddon’s narrative technique of allowing the story to unfold through the varying viewpoints of the eight main characters. This is not quite the traditional linear unfurling of a plot line.  At times it feels like Haddon has bestowed upon you the gift of mind reading and as you walk through the room you become privy to each person’s inner thoughts in turn.

His art of description—and it is artful—pulled me in from the first page. As an example of his gifted command of language, there is a dramatic turn of events in the latter half of the book when a violent rain storm plays an important role. Haddon paints the approach of the storm:

The drop in pressure. Bruised purple sky, wind like a train, the landscape suddenly alive, trees bent and struggling, swathes of alternating color racing through the long grass, the sky being hauled over the valley like a blanket. An empty white fertilizer sack dances along the side of a hill. Windows hammer in their sashes, the boiler vent clatters and slaps. A tile is levered from the roof, cartwheels over the garden wall and sticks into the earth like a little shark fin. The bins chatter and snap in the woodshed, fighting the bungees that hold them down.

I was able to fully picture the ferocity of the approaching storm. The details of the blowing grass, the white fertilizer bag and the shingle from the roof empaled in the ground looking like a shark’s fin were all delightfully rendered. I saw all of it vividly.  Haddon also gets us wet as the storm itself hits:

Then it comes, like a great gray curtain being dragged down from the hills, the fields smudged and darkened. A noise like wet gravel smashed against the glass. The guttering fills and bubbles and water gushes from the feet of the downpipes. Drops fantail on the bench top and the stone steps and the polished roof of the Mercedes. Water pools and runs in the ruts of the drive, drips down the chimney and pings and fizzes on the hot metal of the stove and squeezes through the old putty that holds the leaded windows fast to puddle on the sills. The rain near horizontal now, a living graph of the wind’s force. All external points of reference gone, no horizon, no fixed lines…

I again was able to fully experience the fury and the noise.  I imagined the raindrops probably the size of olives battering the farm house and finding its way inside through every compromised crack or crevice.

Day by day the thoughts and secrets of each player are revealed. Young Alex squares off with sexy but unapproachable Melissa and Richard, the pompous doctor for different reasons. Daisy struggles with her relationship with the church and discovers things about herself that she is not wholly comfortable with. Melissa is filled with teenage angst and anger and begrudgingly enters into a frail on-and-off-again friendship with Daisy. Benjy who is left mainly to his own devices is content for the most part living in his own imagined world.  Angela is haunted by the stillborn death of a daughter 18 years past, and the other adults, Richard, Louisa and Dominic, all are confronting their own demons.

Condensed like that into a single paragraph, the conflicts and foibles may sound contrived but believe me these are not all huge, dramatic plot developments. I found the story to be more than plausible and the glimpses inside each head to be believable and in character with each person.  The portraits of all eight individuals are honestly and carefully rendered and the scenery and farm house become fully fleshed out players in this novel as well.

There is no question that I give this book a full five out of five stars.  I have read two books by Mark Haddon and been fully captivated by both [The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time as well as The Red House].  It won’t be long until I pick up A Spot of Bother which was his sophomore release published in between. I cannot say enough positive things about The Red House. If you like books that explore the inner workings of ordinary people, you will like this book.  This in not a murder mystery, a spy thriller, a romance novel or a quirky comedy.  There are no wizards or vampires in this book. It is populated with real people who have real doubts and thoughts.  This book is an inventive exploration of humans in conflict. Conflict within themselves and with others.  The construct takes a little getting used to at the start but I found it to be worth the effort. Get this book. If you are not sure about plunking down $25 for it, then put your name on the waiting list at the library or borrow it from a friend. It is worth getting a hold of it any way you can.

photo: Offa’s Dyke by Pete Buckley
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