The premise of this novel is very simple. Brother and sister Richard and Angela have recently lost their mother after a long and distressing illness. Somewhat out of the blue Richard offers to host (can host be used as a verb like this?) Angela and family in a week long holiday in a cottage in Herefordshire, the eponymous Red House. Richard brings his second wife Louisa and her daughter, Melissa. Angela brings husband Dominic, teenage son Alex, slightly younger but still teenage daughter Daisy, and eight year old Benjamin. (I wrote the sentence above without reference to the text, a good sign that the characters came to life for me).
Over the course of the week their back stories are filled in, childhood traumas revisited, (Richard and Angela’s mother was an alcoholic, Angela had a stillborn child eighteen years earlier, and so on) and although very little of note happens in the course of the week (more than you might have thought from reading some reviews) the character development is more than sufficient to maintain interest. One teenager slowly comes to a realisation that they are gay, another is embroiled in a cyber bullying/teen suicide scenario. There is some light shopping, cooking for eight, board games and jigsaws, a traditional rainy holiday.
The narrative style Haddon uses here sometimes makes the reader work harder than they might be used to – there’s very little “Richard said” or “Angela drowsed off and began to dream” – instead we are pitched straight into the stream of consciousness or dream itself, and left to catch up from the context and content. Occasionally one has to back track once working out what is thinking or dreaming or talking. That is clearly a deliberate attempt to keep the reader focussed and paying attention, and it works well – the text is not so obscure that the reader can’t eventually work out who is thinking, even if they have jumped associatively from what was being said a moment ago.
In “The Curious Incident” Haddon came very close to successfully presenting the world through the eyes of a child with Asperberger’s Syndrome. I had some issues with this – I thought the way Christopher navigated his way around the London Underground a bit too contrived and unconvincing – but here the ventriloquism reaches a new level. Each character has a convincing internal monologue. Benjy’s eight year old perspective on the world was especially touching and convincing, but each character is given their own realistic voice. Haddon can show the world equally well through the narcisstic eyes of a teenage bully, lovers feeling children again through one another’s touch, or a mother still grieving for a lost child after 18 years.
There are no heroes here – everyone is flawed one way or another, some more than others, but equally no cardboard villains, just real, convincing, vulnerable people. The detail is stunning – one character puts soft brown sugar on her frosties in a way only someone with weight issues would; another character has unsuccessful 20 second sex which ends violently, but still exults at having had sex. There are also plenty of reference to popular culture and literature here to keep the reader entertained, but the novel wears its learning lightly. All in all highly recommended, and I will be tracking down his second novel when a gap emerges in my reading schedule.