Mark Haddon’s The Red House: A Modern Family Reunion
By Andrew Agudo | Monday, September 10, 2012
Everyone knows family reunions are disasters — full of tension and baggage, both personal and familial. But in his latest novel, The Red House, Mark Haddon delivers a family reunion that makes “disaster” sound like stoical understatement.
After their mother’s death, Angela and Richard, siblings who’ve long been out of touch, agree to bring their respective families together. They hope to start anew and settle the past. Of course, nothing’s ever that simple, and it seems every character carries an internal burden. Angela still grapples with the baby she lost eighteen years ago; Dominic, her husband, struggles with his infidelities. Even their children — Alex, Daisy, and Benjy — have strife, everything ranging from impending adulthood to sexuality to religion to death.
And then there’s the other side of the family. Richard, a successful doctor, worries about a malpractice lawsuit; Louisa, his new, younger second wife, faces her regrettable promiscuous past; her daughter Melissa, too, has a past she can’t escape. Together, these two families — these two groups of individuals, really — vacation in a house in the countryside for a week. A recipe for disaster, right? And for much of the novel, indeed the two families may as well be in the dark, as they search for answers and acceptance. But out of this darkness, some (or, to some degree, all) characters do gain a little understanding, a little clarity, to their lives.
The Red House strikes a wide range of notes in a limited amount of space. In a matter of a few pages, you read about philosophical muses, tragic hallucinations, and awkward teenage fantasies. That’s one of the benefits to the book’s narrative, which is broken up into small intervals, switching from character to character in a matter of paragraphs. Much to Haddon’s credit, such a technique is put to good use; it increases irony and suspense, raises the familial pulse, and plays insecurities against each other. Yet, despite all the different conflicts and point of views, Haddon is able to bring it all together and deliver a tightly told story.