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enjoyable and thought-provoking.
The Red House is the third adult novel by British poet and author, Mark Haddon. A week after burying their mother, Angela’s brother Richard, with whom she has had minimal contact for fifteen years, offers to take both their families on holiday. Five weeks later, Dominic, Angela and their three children are on the train to Hay-on-Wye; from Edinburgh, Richard, his wife of six months and his step-daughter are in his Mercedes headed for the same destination: a week in April in a rented house in Herefordshire.
Neither couple expects this to be a jolly family get-together, but they intend to make the best of it. Four adults, three teens and an eight-year-old are gathered in close quarters, all having issues, worries or problems that are slowly revealed to a greater or lesser audience. In between (or sometimes during) meals, walks, excursions, activities and leisure, there are confessions, confrontations, accusations, revelations, tantrums and tears.
And what a feast of emotions and attitudes Haddon heaps on his characters: resentment at carrying the burden of elder care; confusion over sexual orientation; insecurity about a partner’s true feelings; enduring grief over a stillborn baby; worry over possible professional misconduct charges; teenage lust; and guilt, lots of guilt, over an extra-marital affair, over previous promiscuity, over bullying, over poor parenting.
While the adults and teens all have their very human flaws, and their words and actions are often easy to comprehend, if not always excuse, it is eight-year-old Benjy, earnest, thoughtful and wholly good, who cannot fail to both tug at the heartstrings and to delight in equal measure.
Even though nothing terribly dramatic happens over the week, and the pace of the story is quite sedate, by Friday, everyone’s lives have been changed to some extent. There are rejected kisses, a sprained ankle, hypothermia from exposure, a ghost, a stuffed owl, canoeing, bookshops, makeshift swords, desperate texts, and unreliable memories.
Haddon establishes the era with occasional, almost haphazard passages of current events, movies, music, crazes and world affairs; he treats his readers to some gorgeous descriptive prose: “A great see-saw of light balanced on the fulcrum of Black Hill, the sun rising on one end, the other end sweeping down the flank of Offa’s Dyke and switching the colours on as it went”. This is a novel somewhat reminiscent of those by David Nicholls, enjoyable and thought-provoking.