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Wednesday, 8 May 2013


Mark Haddon made his name with a book for children, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. He has now written a book for adults.

The novel is set in a house in Wales - the red house of the title - where eight members of an extended family, aunts, parents, children, step-cousins, spend a week's holidays.

Inevitably, with eight people squashed into a remote house in the countryside for seven days, there are conflicts, revelations, epiphanies, growth, life changes, arguments, fallings out and makings up.

In fact it almost feels like a list of issues to be addressed - homosexuality - check, sibling rivalry - check, an extramarital affair - check, mental illness - check, bullying - check.

The setting is also important. These are all urban people, who are unused to being in the country. Most of them, except the teenage Alex, are uncomfortable outside the city. As Richard thinks, "The deep greens of the foliage. You didn't get this in a city, the way the light changed constantly."

Taken out of their comfort zone they all react in different ways. Some reject the nature around them, some embrace it, some try to defeat it.

The setting is the catalyst for the drama. The four adults and four children are squashed together in one house away from everything they know. There is a spark of romance between some of the teenagers, suspicion among the men, incomprehension between the two women, a near death experience.

The style is very distinctive. The writing jumps from person to person, describing each scene almost simultaneously from differing viewpoints. We get a paragraph from Dominic's perspective, then from his son, Alex, then from his daughter Daisy, then we hear from his brother-in-law, Richard. Jump, jump, jump, jump.

It can be disorientating to read this, with the perspective constantly changing. At times it is not clear who we are reading about, and by the time we work it out we are on to some other character. Though the style does manage to create a wholeness, a sense of completeness to the narrative. We see the events through all of the characters' eyes, and so we have the opportunity of being inside the heads of all the important people in the story. It is intense but largely successful.

Overall the novel has some interesting elements, and is enjoyable to read. But I didn't really connect with any person in the story, the issue driven narrative is a bit trite and predictable, at the expense of the characters.

The book is saved from being a kind of literary soap-opera by the strength of the writing and the pace of the narrative. And at least, in the end, while there has been change and development, there are no simplistic solutions, no easy resolution. As Dominic thinks, towards the end of the book, "when Alex grabbed hold of him he thought something would change. Revelation, turning point, but it doesn't happen, it never happens."

They leave, having learned important things about themselves, but with no more answers than they had when they arrived. 

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