The Red House is a very adult novel from an author who had principally produced books for children. His big literary hit came with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), a book that was marketed to both adults and young adults. It is notable due to the narrator being a boy with Aspergers syndrome. The Red House seems to be the complete opposite, with its themes of familial dysfunction and frustrated desires. But with closer inspection it is apparent that Haddon is still exploring the subjectivity of individual perspective and the alienation this can engender.
Siblings Richard and Angela were estranged, but the death of their alcoholic mother brings them together and at Richard’s behest they embark on a seven-day holiday in the Welsh county-side in order to bring the family together. An ensemble of eight family members makes for a complicated representation of humanity. In fact the whole human life cycle is covered and it is almost like Haddon wanted use this family to examine each age group’s particular problems. There’s a stillborn baby; Benjy is a typical eight year-old; Daisy, Melissa and Alex represent the teenage years and middle age by Dominic, Lauren and Angela. Old age is covered by the adults parents, which they often refer to and blame for most of their problems.
Using a third person omniscient point of view, Haddon switches back and forth between characters, revealing their thoughts and desires, most of which are thwarted ones. Haddon takes his cues from Modernism, with thoughts and dialogue giving the impression of flowing together and merging with the often abstract narration. This anachronistic form takes a bit of getting used to, as often it is not obvious which character is present in the narrative. The dialogue is presented in italics, rather then in quotations, a convention that further enhances the blurred narrative boundaries.
The Red House is not overtly plot-driven; instead it’s a vehicle for an exploration of the characters particular problems. There’s the usual palette of human dysfunctions, frustrations and yearnings. The younger characters are the strongest; Daisey, Melissa and Alex are convincing teenagers complete with sexual confusion, identity issues and a general disconnect with their parents worlds. Haddon explores outright teenage lust via Alex’s fantasies and clumsy attempts to seduce Melissa and flirt with Richard’s middle-aged wife – Lauren. It’s all pretty accurate stuff.
The adults are curiously bland, although Angela is the most convincing due to her strong back-story, which involves a stillborn baby and a troubled childhood. As the adults muddle through their problems a certain level of tedium develops and when Richard is injured and caught in a storm whilst out jogging the reader is a passive observer rather than emotionally involved with his plight. The characters are not psychologically interesting enough and the writing does not quite live up to Haddon’s Modernist ambitions.
In comparison other books I’ve read recently that explore the theme of familial dysfunction were compelling and intense. The Man Who Loved Children (1940) is both unique and intensely psychologically disturbing. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) featured convincing characters with problems that connected with the wider dysfunction of the nation. The Red House unfortunately pales in comparison. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the quality of the above-mentioned novels, but The Red House failed to spark the synapses and was merely an exercise in reading rather than a compelling engagement with a strong narrative. This was a book club book and true to form some people thought the novel was absolutely brilliant, which is very different to my point of view, but if the Modernists were anything to go by then each viewpoint is equally valid.