The family vacation has been the subject of many a comedic essay and Chevy Chase film, but in Mark Haddon’s new book, it gets both the literary and psychological treatment.
The Red House, Haddon’s first adult novel since 2006’s A Spot of Bother, is undoubtedly the writer’s most ambitious undertaking to date. And yet, it also pays homage to his most acclaimed book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: In both stories, Haddon taps into the brains of children while at the same time making the quotidian feel larger than life.
His latest offering follows one family—husband Dominic, wife Angela, children Alex, Daisy and Benjy—on a trip to Wales to visit Angela’s brother Richard and new wife and stepdaughter. From the onset, nobody is particularly excited about this sojourn (Angela and Richard haven’t been close since the death of their mother) and the laborious way in which the clan goes through the motions of “quality time” is one of the book’s many uncomfortable delights.
Still, more interesting is Haddon’s creative approach to interiority. In lieu of typical authorial omniscience, he jumps from character to character’s brain—often multiple times within a single page—in a way that is both frenetic and delightful. In other words, don’t get put off if you’re initially confused; you’ll eventually get used to the device and come to appreciate Haddon’s ability to illuminate an incident from multiple points of view.
Indeed, one of the book’s many great truths is that each person is too wrapped up in his own tiny dramas to appreciate anyone else’s: Angela in the loss of a stillborn child, Alex in his nascent need to assert his masculinity, Daisy in her conflicted (if fervent) relationship with God, and so on. This can lead—as in the case of several failed kisses—to miscommunications only comprehensible from the outside in. And yet, as the trip’s small incidents play out, the characters do change and do learn to understand one another—particularly the teenagers, for whom Haddon clearly has great compassion.
It’s also worth mentioning that Haddon is a supremely talented and perceptive writer with a great love of language and poetics. If The Curious Incident relied on simple diction and vocabulary, this book is the opposite—lyrically flowing from thought to thought, brain to brain, potential connection to potential connection.