Begin with the enforced intimacy of a place – preferably remote and rural. Add a handful of people who haven’t seen each other in a long time/don’t get along/have secrets. Toss in some bad weather. Stir.
It’s the set-up for a lot of novels, full of potential volatility, though it can feel tired, even dreary if not handled well.
In his new novel, The Red House, Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, handles it very well.
The Red House puts estranged siblings Richard and Angela and their respective spouses and children in a house on the Welsh border for a week. Richard, his wife Louisa and Louisa’s 16-year-old daughter drive to the house. Angela, her husband Dominic and their three children go by train. There is a sense of hurtling forward motion propelled by Haddon’s spare, beautiful language as the train and car head towards the house. Objects are seen and named and quickly passed: “Cooling towers and sewage farms. Finstock, Charlbury, Ascott-under-Wychwood. Seventy miles per hour, the train unzips the fields.”
The Red House itself is a “Romano-British farmstead, abandoned, ruined, plundered for stone, built over, burnt and rebuilt.” The description establishes one of the book’s themes: the passage of time; the accumulation of event; history. Haddon refers to history as “something solid with something fluid moving over it,” which is right and beautiful and underpins the book.
There isn’t much plot to The Red House, though there is lots of incident – run-ins, hostility, bullying, sexual overtures, one close call with hypothermia, one epiphany, an early stage psychotic break. Sin in multiple guises is well represented – envy, lust, jealousy, pride, dishonesty.
But the feeling here is less of sin than of human-ness; these characters are fallible and imperfect because they’re people. One of the strengths of the book is Haddon’s compassion. He doesn’t stand above and in judgment of his characters; he portrays them in all their failings with sympathy and understanding.
Haddon’s use of language and his powers of observation are consistently strong and often extraordinary.
Take the moment when Richard’s 16-year-old stepdaughter, perhaps the least likeable character in the book, imagines what the rented house will be like. “There’d be scrabble wouldn’t there, a tatty box in some drawer, a pack of 51 playing cards, a pamphlet from a goat farm.”
A little later, as the two families arrive at the house, we see an inventory of things the house contains “Two brass spoons under the floorboards…Cream paint and stripped pine. The fire blanket in its red holster. Framed watercolors of mallow and campion. Biodegradable washing up liquid. A random selection of elderly, secondhand hardbacks. A pamphlet from a goat farm.”
Finding that actual pamphlet, that recurring phrase, is deeply satisfying, though there are other pleasures in that paragraph too. In a few lines we see what the house is like; who’s been there before (not just washing up liquid, biodegradable washing up liquid) and learn something about Melissa (sharp, clever and sarcastic.) And the lines underscore the layered, historical sense the house and the book are built upon. Layering is a recurring motif. Just as the house is old, rebuilt, overbuilt, built up again, the viewpoints of multiple characters reacting to the same event allows us to see each character in different ways. When Daisy, Angela’s daughter, tries to kiss Melissa, we see it from Daisy’s point of view. We see Melissa’s reaction to it. Soon, everyone in the house knows and we see the event again, refracted through their comments and reactions. Eight characters—and the novel is told from the shifting points-of-view of all eight—are enough for an exponentially large number of potential conversations, and alliances.
Haddon is very good at character interaction, the little pops of emotion, connection, realization.
Melissa and Angela’s husband Dominic sitting next to each other outdoors: “They said nothing. It was uncomfortable, then it was comfortable, then it was uncomfortable.”
Daisy having coffee with her mother in town: “And it came to Daisy out of the blue. Her mother was a human being. How rarely she saw it.” Soon though, “her mother was simply her mother again, the person you came back to after the adventure.”
The adults behave childishly or worse over the course of the week – Richard goes on a run beyond his physical capabilities in weather that quickly turns dangerous – and has to be rescued by his 17-year-old nephew, Alex; Angela is increasingly occupied by the vision of the newborn child she lost 18 years before. The children seem stronger, more able to act, sometimes heroically.
Not all the characters are equally well drawn. Angela feels generic; Dominic, her husband, less so, but it’s like his signal is weak, passive. “He wonders briefly is [Daisy] waiting to tell him about the encounter with Melissa but she doesn’t and what he feels mostly is relief… That there is nothing for him to do.”
Richard and Louisa are both more fully realized, Louisa in particular. We see her physical self through Richard’s eyes – “the spill of blond hair, hip curved and creaturely.” The powerful desire she evokes in Richard gives each of them more dimension. The children, too, are strongly written.
It’s such a pleasure to be in the presence of Haddon’s intellect, his relish of language and his descriptive powers, which are fierce. Oddly, that same acuity at description is sometimes a drawback. Haddon can’t seem to let go of any observation, he’s equally wedded to each. Every description is precise and sharp – this is a writer working at the top of his game – but coming one after another they can feel like a pile up. It’s hard to savor each.
The prose itself is taut and clean and pared to the bone, but it is sometimes rhythmically tedious. “Ruined arches striding away like the legs of a great stone spider. Trancepts, triforium, clerestory.” You can feel the love of the sound of words in his sentences, but he follows up with a three or four word punch fairly often, and that can be distractingly percussive.
The book ends, literally, as it began with the “Framed watercolors of mallow and campion… The bank note. The brass spoons… The pattern of ancient paths. Hay Bluff, Lord Hereford’s Knob. Heather and purple moor grass and little craters of rippling peaty water. High up, a red kite weaving its way through the holes in the wind.”
Time passes, people arrive and depart, places continue. The Red House is a house with a long history; to it comes this family with individual and collective histories of their own. The families arrive then move away: something solid with something fluid moving over it.
It’s a beautiful ride.