Saturday, June 30, 2012

THE RED HOUSE by Mark Haddon

I read Mark Haddon's first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, while flying somewhere. Usually plane trips make me sleepy. That time I was transfixed, improbably gripped by his first-person account of an autistic boy's attempt to learn who killed the neighbor's poodle.

A couple of years later, I eagerly took Haddon's second novel, A Spot of Bother, off the library's new-books shelf. Meh. Maybe my expectations were  too high. It's not bad, for a dysfunctional-family novel, but I didn't breathlessly tell my friends about it.

A few weeks ago I read a review of his third novel, The Red House, and put it on hold. It was published June 12, I got it June 15 (I adore the Wheaton Public Library), it was due yesterday, and I finished it last night. It wouldn't have kept me awake on a long flight, but it's oddly brilliant.

I once read a definition of a literary novel as one where the characters, after thinking a great deal, are just as miserable at the end as they were at the beginning. The Red House is definitely a literary novel. The situation: a brother and a sister in their late 40s, having ignored each other for years, meet for a two-family vacation near Hay-on-Wye not long after their mother's funeral. Here is the cast of characters, with their problems:

Richard, the brother. A physician who is facing a lawsuit. Shocked by revelations about his second wife. Doesn't much like her daughter.

Louisa, his wife. Unhappy first marriage. A past she'd rather forget. A daughter she doesn't know what to do with.

Melissa, their daughter, age 16. The meanest of mean girls, facing serious trouble back home for something she shouldn't have done. Realizes she has no real friends.

Angela, the sister. Not fond of either her brother or her husband. Resentful about being left to care for her aging mother. Afraid she will turn out just like her. Grieving the loss of an infant 18 years ago.

Dominic, her husband. Loser who, unbeknownst to Angela, is cheating on her with a woman he isn't sure he likes.

Alex, their son, age 17. Who knows what his problems will be after he relaxes his grip on his, um, total obsession with sex?

Daisy, their daughter, age 16. In-your-face religious, which annoys her family. I won't tell you about her other problem, one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Benjy, their son, age 8. Lives mostly in his imagination. Biggest problem: he has to hang out with the rest of this crew.

Put these eight in one vacation home in a remote part of Herefordshire and see what happens. Adopt the stance of omniscient narrator and tell their stories through stream-of-consciousness narration with lots of sentence fragments. Make it a big tricky, sometimes, for the reader to know who's talking, and see if we care what happens.

Well, eventually I did care, even though my usual lazy taste runs toward more straightforward novels. Haddon is a good writer. He may be a genius. But so far his legacy still depends on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

PS - For a thorough, knowledgeable, funny, and curmudgeonly review of this novel, read Tom Shone, "Under One Roof," in the July 8 New York Times.

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