BOOKS Red House doesn’t hold its weight
There’s something appropriate (nay, cleverly conceived) about The Red House, the new novel by Mark Haddon, published in June. With summer upon us, thoughts are turning to vacations, and what, it seems, could be better than a novel about the unpleasantness that can The Red House befall a by Mark Hadfamily don (Doubleday holiday?
Canada, 272 Conceppages, $29.95) tually, The
Red House is promising. Following the death of their mother, estranged siblings Richard and Angela decide to bring their respective families together for a week of holidays at a rental house in the English countryside.
The estrangement between the brother and sister is only one source of potential drama. Richard, a doctor facing a court hearing over malpractice, has only recently married Louisa, a woman with something of a checkered past and a problematic, vegetarian teenage daughter, Melissa. Angela has been married to Dominic for almost 20 years, and they have three children.
It’s fertile ground for drama, and Haddon doesn’t skimp on that front: old secrets are revealed, and new secrets hidden. Desires rise and fall. There are open arguments and sore feelings, and one incident of true, life-and-death peril.
Despite the premise and the drama, however, the novel doesn’t really work.
Haddon tells the story from the individualized points of view of each character, shifting among them without any marker as to who is speaking, often multiple times on the same page.
While multiple-pointof-view novels can work, The Red House doesn’t. By using the third-person perspective for all of the points of view, Haddon creates a uniformity of voice that makes the shift between characters difficult to follow.
Quick shifts in point of view also hampers any sense of effective character development.
Despite the differences between, say, Richard and Dominic — the former a wealthy doctor, the latter a philanderer who has lost his job and is making ends meet working at a bookstore — Haddon’s approach makes it difficult to keep them straight.
The children emerge more clearly as characters, but that’s largely a matter of degree; I can’t say that any of the characters in the book are well-rounded.
It’s frustrating to read a novel as full of promise as The Red House, especially one from an author as beloved as Haddon (whose The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was brilliant in every respect), which collapses so resolutely under the weight of its own construction and pretensions.
Thankfully, it’s as rare an occurrence as it is frustrating.