3 February 2014
THE RED HOUSE by Mark Haddon
Last month I elected THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS as my book of the year for 2013. I’m already thinking about my book of the year for 2014 and one nomination has already come in. THE RED HOUSE by Mark Haddon is definitely a candidate and I will be using it as my benchmark going forward. Mark Haddon wrote THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME and so has established his pedigree. Ok, but why am I so impressed?
We’ve discussed what makes for a good book. Engaging characters, an interesting plot-line and as often as not, some kind of moral or theme. I’ve learnt that in the publishing industry this idea of moral or theme is known as ‘premise’ or ‘conceit’ although I don’t seem to find those definitions in my dictionary. And whilst these issues are adequately dealt with in THE RED HOUSE, there’s nothing exceptional there in that regard.
It’s the story of two families spending a week together in the same place. ‘Angela and her brother Richard have spent twenty years avoiding each other. Now, after the death of their mother, they bring their families together for a holiday in a rented house on the Welsh border. Four adults and four children. Seven days of shared meals, log fires, card games and wet walks.’ No-one is murdered, so I think we can expect relationships to be tested and secrets to be revealed.
It’s not a new idea. Last night I went to see AUGUST : OSAGE COUNTY with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. A family gathers round their mother after her husband commits suicide. Relationships are tested and secrets are revealed. I recently read SEATING ARRANGEMENTS by Maggie Shipstead. The family of prominent New England banker, Winn van Meter, congregates for the wedding of his eldest daughter. Relationships will be tested, etc. We’re not exactly breaking new ground here.
What I found extraordinary about this book is the form and the language. The author manages to combine a ‘stream of consciousness‘ technique with passages of more conventional prose and does so to great effect. He also shows a healthy disregard for the niceties of grammar – his Word docs must be littered with highlighted sentences. From the very first we are assailed with words, fired at us like bullets. The opening opening lines tell you everything.
‘Cooling towers and sewage farms. Finstock, Charlbury, Ascott-under Wychwood. Seventy miles an hour, the train unzips the fields.’
This is not an easy read. You’re going to have to work (moderately) hard to get to grips with the writing and with what’s going on in the book – not least because of the eight central characters (four adults, four children) and the fact that Mark Haddon insists on getting inside the head of each and every one of them. You may put this book down very quickly and say you can’t get on with it. Alternatively, you might not put it down at all. THE RED HOUSE is like Marmite – you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, there is no inbetween.
Personally, I loved it. As an author, I found it immensely exciting and I enjoyed the ‘challenge’ of reading it. The prose and the action race along hand in hand, language and plot driving each other. The piece sets off at seventy miles an hour, literally, and it stays that way. I wonder what goes on in Mark Haddon’s mind as he writes this stuff – it must be exhausting.
Naturally, I have one or two minor quibbles. Because we had eight different characters to deal with, I never felt I knew any one of them in great depth. I was also a little disappointed in the ending where nothing seemed to be resolved. Relationships were tested and secrets revealed but I’m not sure anything changed as a result.
That said, THE RED HOUSE is a five star read for me and something exceptional will have to come along to knock it off its perch if it’s not my book of the year. I’m sure I’ll be reading it again before 2014 is out just to make sure it’s still ‘got it’. In fact, now I’ve had to pick it up again …