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The Red House

by Mark Haddon

An estranged brother and sister, Richard and Angela, take their families away together for a week to a large farmhouse by Offa's Dyke. The death of their mother is the catalyst for this attempted reunion but it remains to be seen whether the twenty years of barely speaking to each other can be repaired by a week of shared cooking, winter walks and forced bonhomie.

Richard, a successful surgeon, has paid for the house, partly, we suspect as blood money for neglect of their dying mother, and he brings along his new glamorous wife, Louisa, and her spoilt, cold-hearted daughter, Melissa. Add to this the emotionally unstable Angela, stuck in a loveless marriage with Dominic, and their three children, testosterone-fuelled seventeen-year-old Alex, God-fearing Daisy and little Benjy, some typically wet Welsh weather, and it is a fine recipe for a disastrous holiday.

Mark Haddon's novels are all about character and his genius lies in his acute insight into the interior landscape we all inhabit. Through internal monologues, each character is gradually revealed, not just by their own words but from the various points of view of the others. Richard, despite his good intentions, is regarded with a mixture of awe and contempt. While his weak and ineffectual brother-in-law expresses his feelings of inadequacy by focussing on Richard's hair, the "luxuriant black crest, like the tusks of a bull walrus, a warning to beta males", his step-daughter, Melissa, is dismissive of him, recalling with disdain the way he does the crossword in pencil first. His athletic young nephew, however, who finds the word 'unzipping' gives him an erection, locks horns with the Alpha male and is shocked to find himself threatened by his "uncle, the doctor, the admirable man". This is just one example of the way our perceptions as readers shift and wobble as we get to know the thought processes, emotions and motivations of each of the characters over the course of the week.

Each day is marked by mini-dramas, internal or external, that serve to gradually reveal the tender spots concealed under the exoskeleton that holds them together. Whether it is past wounds or present anxieties - inadequate parents; adulterous relationships; doubtful sexuality; professional mishaps or the ghost of a stillborn child - each is haunted by something that they struggle to articulate never mind face up to. Haddon portrays brilliantly the dynamics that underpin the groups of people who, often with very little in common, go under the name of family - "that slippery word, a star to every wandering bark, and everyone sailing under a different sky."

Funny and sad, THE RED HOUSE is a fine novel and a great read.

Published by Vintage, 352pp.

Read our interview with Mark Haddon.

Clare Chandler

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