Mark Haddon, The Red House
Examining a tense, claustrophobic environment
For a novel with such serious aspirations, The Red House has a lot in common with MTV’s The Real World. Eight near-strangers gather for an extended vacation, and they pass the time by fighting and keeping secrets. After the death of their alcoholic mother, middle-aged Richard invites his estranged sister Angela to stay in an English country house. They both bring their respective families — Angela takes her husband and three children, while Richard brings his second wife and stepdaughter. What promises to be a tense, claustrophobic setup is exactly that: a veritable petri dish for conflict and reflection.
Through a series of interlocking vignettes, none of which lasts for very long, the book shows each character’s point of view. At times, the flighty narrative voice becomes aggravating; some characters’ perspectives are much more compelling than others. Richard, for example, seems to serve his purpose by contrasting with Dominic, Angela’s cowardly husband. Angela, on the other hand, has more pathos and depth. She miscarried 18 years in the story’s past, and still stews in her unhealthy fantasies. Her failure to adjust is heartbreaking and true.
Though the novel is broad in scope, its characters have recognizable problems and realistic reactions to them. By the end of the story, some seize the opportunity for transformation, while others sink deeper into their own dysfunction.