27 November 2013

The Red House, by Mark Haddon

This is a strange and rather prickly sort of book. I bet most readers hated it, because it is not at all like Haddon's previous two novels, Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime and A Spot of Bother (apparently I never blogged about either, which seems highly unlikely. Huh. Though I did put Spot of Bother on my Best Read of 2008 list). It's much darker--though neither of the other two books is entirely happy-go-lucky, they don't leave a lasting sense of gloom. Perhaps The Red House won't either, as time passes, but it definitely seems to delve into grimmer material. Actually, there are a few moments that are downright terrifying--impressively so, I thought. What sets the book apart, too, is it's structure. Narrated in fragments of indirect discourse (easily mistaken for stream-of-consciousness, but crucially different), hopping from one character's perspective to the next, we gradually arrive at the story of an extended family spending a vacation together, and the various bits of baggage they all bring. It's an ambitious plan for a novel, and it's not entirely successful. But I nonetheless found it quite absorbing (I actually read the entire second half in one long late-night rush, though that might have more to do with late November doldrums than anything else).

The book totters, at times, in bringing its characters to life. It's pretty clear that Haddon doesn't really like all of them equally, and sometimes he seems to be straining to humanize them in the face of somewhat damning evidence against them. There is unfortunately something not quite believable in the women: they often feel like characters rather than people, though I did find that they evoked a strangely vivid instinct to supplement them with my own memories or feelings. In other words, they were containers for ideas that I occasionally helped carry. Haddon's effort to enter the mind of a small child were similarly intriguing (is it terrible that I think of things I've written recently about authors imagining the animal mind?), but mostly in that they made you conscious of the fact that it's a difficult thing to do and he was trying to do it and managing semi-well.

One thing I particularly appreciate about Haddon is that I think he is often ahead of the curve in terms of important issues. Or rather, he is one of the few authors I know of whose books matter-of-factly include things from everyday life that aren't typical to novels, and do so in a non-ostentatious sort of way that doesn't feel like tokenism.I remember being somewhat surprised that A Spot of Bother included a side-plot about a gay couple, which now seems pat but then felt rather new and risque. This time, I noticed that one of the kids has a friend named Pavel, and assumed that the friend was the child of an immigrant from Eastern Europe, but it never came up. It just happened to be the friend's name. Which was nice. There is also a side-plot about bullying, which is slightly less successful, though definitely timely. I think this is something we'll appreciate about Haddon's books in years to come; the way they reflect specific features of our own historical moment. Even if they don't always do it as well as one might like.

But overall, I liked the book. I am enjoying watching Haddon grow and develop as a writer. I didn't like Curious Incident nearly as much as most people did, though I found it enjoyable, and I'm relieved that the adulation it inspired didn't end his career. I like that he seems to be slogging on, doing adventurous and difficult things despite receiving mixed reviews for them. I think he's a skilled writer and an interesting one, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

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