The Red House by Mark Haddon (Doubleday; 272 pages; $25.95).
A death in the family. A brother and sister estranged. A holiday. A house in the country. What a perfect setting for comedy and tragedy as Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, returns with a new novel about a modern family and all its triumphs and insecurities in The Red House. Haddon pulls back the layers of a family to display them at their absolute worst. Yet, only then, curiously, can they fully understand each other.
Richard and Angela, both middle-aged, are siblings. Their mother recently passed away of a long illness closely resembling dementia. Richard and Angela have not been close since their teens. “Angela and Richard,” Haddon writes, “had spent no more than an afternoon in each other’s company over the last fifteen years.” Many bottled-up emotions threaten to overpower them both. The siblings never “felt like brother and sister, just two people who spoke briefly on the phone every few weeks or so to manage the stages of their mother’s decline.”
In a conciliatory gesture, Richard and his wife, Louisa, rent a country house in England for a week and invite Angela and her family. Everyone arrives with lots of literal and figurative baggage.
Richard had “remarried six months ago, acquiring a stepdaughter in the bargain.” He is a doctor who may be facing a malpractice suit when he returns from holiday. His new wife, Louisa, has a past and tries too hard to fit into Richard’s life, even if that means losing the person she is. Louisa’s daughter, Melissa, thinks she is a “princess,” better than everyone else. Melissa and some friends bullied another girl to the point she attempted suicide.
Angela loses her grip on reality and suffers from the same debilitating illness her mother had. Her husband, Dominic, is having an affair. Their son, Alex, flirts shamelessly with both Louisa and Melissa. Daisy, their daughter, finds herself caught between her religion and homosexuality. Benjy, the baby, loves fantasies and who could blame him with this family?
The holiday is the perfect set-up for long-held grudges, pent-up emotions, dark family secrets, jealousies, resentments, bottled-up desires to rear their ugly heads. The Red House is Shakespearean tragic-comedy at its best.
There are no chapters in The Red House; instead, Haddon divides the novel into days of the week. Haddon begins the novel on a Friday and ends the following Friday. Structuring the novel in such a way enables Haddon to use flash fiction to tell his story.
Employing short bursts of narrative, Haddon writes little vignettes, often consisting of only a few paragraphs. Reading the book, I felt as if I had become the house in question in the novel. It was as if I were eavesdropping on the characters, but only for three to five minutes before traveling on to see what the others were up to.
Think also of changing the channel on a television. For a few moments, you manage to get a feel for what is being broadcast before you change the channel once again. Millions of stimuli bombard you just in that short length of time. That is what reading The Red House feels like, and this reader was entranced.
Flash fiction has not been around long. In fact, only within the last year have I read this sub-genre of literary fiction. Most flash fiction consists of only about 100 or so words or one or two paragraphs. Haddon does not limit himself to a specific word or paragraph count. Flash fiction can often become gimmicky, but not for Haddon and not with The Red House. Haddon remains in control of his story and in control of his use of flash fiction. This is not that simple to do. Done right, flash fiction can be beautiful, as it is here.
Haddon writes with depth and nuance. He uses body language in such a way that what is unspoken carries just as much significance as what is said. The conflicts of Haddon’s characters drive this story, no matter if they are inner ones or those between characters or even against nature. Haddon points out that only when conflicts are resolved can we go on with life. While his conclusion is satisfying, some problems are solved while others are only beginning. Such is life and family.
I recommend The Red House for fans of Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love and Lou Beach’s 420 Characters.