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The Red House – Mark Haddon

booksFor her last birthday party, Lovely Daughter #1 decided to invite her friends around for lunch.

“What do you want to feed them?” I asked. “Spag bol?”

This was no good, as a number of them were vegetarians, including my daughter, although I had forgotten this.

“What about pizza then?”

This was rejected as “too mainstream”. And who can blame her – who wants to be like everyone else? (They ate home made fish cakes and smiley faces in the end.)

Anyway, for my first blog, I am going to go unapologetically mainstream with this week’s Waterstones #10 bestseller, Mark Haddon’s The Red House.

I saw Mark Haddon at the Charleston Festival in May 2013. I had been a bit dubious at the idea of going to listen to someone talk about a book I had never read, but once there I was intrigued by the description of novel’s modernist theme, and surprised by the author’s enthusiasm for Virginia Woolf’s exploration for such themes, along the lines of – what is it to be inside the skin of a person? And how do you use words to simulate being inside the membrane that separates people from each other?

The setting for the action, which takes place over one week, is The Red House, a holiday home where eight characters are to gather. These are: a brother and sister, doctor Richard and teacher Angela; Louisa and Dominic, Richard and Angela’s partners; and their various children (three to Angela, one step-child to Richard.) They have gone away to spend some time together in the wake of Angela and Richard’s mother’s slow death from Alzheimer’s.

The book opens off with a defining flit through all the characters’ heads – defining not just in terms of character, but in terms of key, perhaps half forgotten, points that could define many of us at various stages in our own lives: Eight year old Benjy’s terror, to the point of tears, at the thought of his parents’ deaths. Fifteen year old Daisy’s desire not to be like everyone else. Sixteen year old Melissa’s melodramatic desire to walk off into the dark and get hypothermia to teach everyone else a lesson. Dominic’s unease that his relationship with his seventeen year old son should not have amounted to something more than it really is. Richard’s memory of his younger, fitter self seeping over the pudgy reality of today.

At Charleston, this was described as a book in which nothing much happens, a description usually intended as a marker aimed at a certain type of reader, rather than as a literal truth. With eight well set up characters, there is much happening: new relationships to explore; increasingly deeper, closer secret; minor clashes; more slow burning ones; and also the uncomfortable situations that arise when people want to get too close to each other.

This is a book about family rivalries and bonds, and about memory.

Richard and Angela’s sibling rivalry is complicated by resentment towards their parents, now both absent and dead. More or less well remembered incidents of their parents’ behaviour, and their memories of how they both shouldered the resulting burdens, at various points in their lives, have coloured how they see each other. The older generation watches the noisy interaction between Angela’s three children and they see a playful bond that they missed out on.

Louisa, Richard’s second wife, is the outsider and so low key in comparison with the other characters to begin with that you wonder why she is there. But once more of her voice comes through, the original quietness seems much more intentional – a reflection on how some of the other characters, mistakenly, initially see her, without looking properly, self occupation being a family trait.

The preoccupation with self supplies much of the humour. Richard’s pompousness in dealing with his step-daughter is contrasted against his actual impotency to do anything about her behaviour, which has been clear already to all the adults and children. Dominic is the most striking example of this self-obsession. Berated by his son for this propensity to “sit around all day moaning”, his first thought on the reappearance of his briefly missing niece is one of “vague disappointment. If she had been murdered they could all go home.”

My favourite funny moment though was the likening of the family decision to go out once more to Hay as “circling a black hole and no longer had the fuel to reach escape velocity”, which sums up the deadpan mixture of hilarity verging on despair, or despair verging on hilarity that is at the heart of the humour.

The beginning of the end for the book is signalled by the book’s most major ‘incident’, in the most conventional sense, involving near hypothermia and rescue. This leads to a major shift for two of the characters in emotional awakening, in how they see themselves, and how they accept that others will see them.

A minor cascade of ‘endings’ then befall the other characters. As the number of pages left visibly diminishes, it might be tempting for a reader to start putting together a jigsaw puzzle of guesses as to the nature of the uplifting moral each character will take away with them. But it is not as simple as that. Some characters do reach a sense of peace and resolution to inner conflict that they might have felt. But each character’s ending is only what they have been shown to be capable of making it.

There are no easy resolutions either to years of rift. There is a point when Richard and Angela share a memory of a family car journey, aptly as they have spent points during the current week in the car with their own families. It becomes clear that Angela, the younger sibling, has forgotten any pain or resentment regarding what happened to her during it. But Richard has held onto the memory, and the resentment and upset it caused him at the time, even though the trauma was not related to him.

The satisfaction for the reader does not lie in resolutions, but in the characters’ acknowledgements that there exists a truth outside their own knowledge. For this, and many other reasons, it’s clever, it’s funny, it’s satisfying. And far more enjoyable a week spent for me reading it than for the poor protagonists inside it.

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