Mark’s Haddon’s third novel The Red House concerns a trip taken by a pair of families – Richard, his new wife Louisa and her almost grown-up daughter Melissa and Richard’s sister Angela’s family, husband Dominic, son Alex and daughter Daisy. Richard and Angela’s mother recently passed away after a long spell in a care home (paid for by Richard who hardly ever went to see her, the day to day upkeep maintained by Angela) and Richard has decided that the two families should be closer. Hence the holiday.
Of course, there are seething tensions below the surface: Angela, for example, has always thought that Richard has had it easier than she has; Melissa, a superficial beauty, may have bullied someone into a suicide attempt; Richard is involved in a complicated litigation at the hospital where he works as a consultant; Dominic is having an affair; Daisy, a recent convert to Christianity, is quietly being either ridiculed (by Melissa, by her brother, by former friends) or misunderstood (by her mum). The week brings further tensions to the surface: Angela lost a baby many years before and the eighteenth anniversary of the baby’s due date is rolling around; both Alex and Daisy are drawn to Melissa and experience revelations of a sort as a result; Richard and Louisa’s new marriage might not be as sturdy as they think…
Told through a rolling prism of the various characters (with additional insight provided by the ghost of Angela’s baby and quite possibly the author himself or at least an archly omniscient stream of consciousness sort given to listing examples of local interest and nuggets of history), The Red House feels like a book that is undercut by its familiarity. Characters taken out of their comfort zones, unspoken age-old gripes percolate, lessons are learned, nothing really happens. The book lacks a truly compulsive narrative – each chapter lasts a day, the book ends as the holiday ends – and what highs there are (will Richard survive his run in the rain? Is Angela really having a breakdown?) feel muted. The advice often given to people worrying about their work (what will it matter five years from now?) applies here: although there are significant events in the book (Daisy seems to settle the issue of her sexuality, for instance), they’re of the ‘well, it’s important to me but I’m not sure they’re important to you’ variety. And if you take a step back and wonder if you’ll remember the events of the book in five years’ time, the answer is probably no.
The dilemmas here are largely middle class. The Red House could quite possibly be the most middle class book I have ever read. This is drama scripted for Blue Peter. It’s fine that there is truth here. I’m sure lots of families experience these kinds of problems. It’s just that a novel can’t quite work like life in this instance without giving the book the feel of an episode of Love Boat: characters appear, obvious problems are resolved, lessons are learned, Peter’s Friends is watched for the umpteenth time and off everyone trots. There needs to be more to a novel than this. I kept hoping for a fire or a car accident or the sudden appearance of a meteorite. Anything to shake the torpor away. It is, to put it bluntly, all a bit meh.
Any Cop?: If I was filling in Mark Haddon’s report card, I’d have to say: must try harder.