Mark Haddon is in what must sometimes seem like the unenviable position of having written a first (adult) novel which was, and continues to be, a smash hit. Drawing in part on his own experiences of working with the autistic, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time has become one of those books that anyone who claims to be a reader must know.
His second novel, A Spot of Bother, did not receive the same acclaim, perhaps partly because the subject was a man in mid-life crisis who convinces himself he is dying. It too was wonderful, though — funny, perceptive and moving.
His latest book, The Red House, is in the same mode as the second. It is the story of an extended dysfunctional family which decides, on the death of the matriarch, to try and repair the damage of the past and bind up its wounds. Written from the point of view of everyone — eight voices tell the story — it seems sometimes overwhelmingly fractured, but perhaps this is deliberate —its disjointed form mirroring its disjointed characters.
Richard, a successful doctor (with a court case against him looming) pays for a week’s holiday in a rented house on the Welsh borders, bringing with him his second wife, Louisa, and her angry daughter Melissa. Richard’s sister, Angela, in permanent mourning for the child she miscarried 18 years earlier, is also invited, along with her husband Dominic (who receives the kinds of text messages you don’t want anyone in the family to intercept) and their children, Daisy, who thinks only about God, Alex, who thinks only about sex, and Benjy, a bewildered eight-year-old trying to make sense of the adult world in which he finds himself marooned.
If this sounds complicated, it is. As the two sides of the family try to meld, old pains and buried secrets gradually begin to emerge. Isolated in the countryside, in a world totally unfamiliar to them all, the characters have time to discover truths not only about each other, but about themselves. The two people who do find a connection in the end are the least expected, but Haddon makes this believable and touching. Some characters disintegrate before our eyes, and others reach no conclusion at all — which is only to be expected from real life. The image at the end of the book, of the cleaners arriving, the kite wheeling overhead and the knowledge that this will all start again with another family is very striking.
Despite the bittiness, and the leaping between tenses for no discernible reason, both of which are distracting, Haddon does succeed with this novel, and the reason is twofold. First and foremost, he writes like a dream. Never showy, but often lyrically descriptive, he takes the reader with him to the core of this crazy family. Secondly, he has a true understanding of the human heart. Whether he is writing about the teenagers — Melissa, beautiful but full of rage and incomprehension, and Daisy, whose church turns out to be a cover for something entirely different — or the adults and their misjudgments, he never puts a foot wrong.