The Red House by Mark Haddon is a domestic drama that gets right under the skin of family life. The idea of ‘family’ takes on an intimate, shockingly beautiful and grotesque patina in this book.
The story centres around a brother and sister and their respective families, who take a seemingly innocuous trip to stay together in the Welsh countryside. Richard is a hospital consultant and his sister Angela is a school teacher. They have been estranged for the majority of their lives due to their tumultuous childhoods. They are brought together in their forties by the death of their mother. Almost strangers after decades of living in separate parts of Britain, Angela and Richard and their two families are polar opposites to each other.
In the beginning, the two families head towards a remote farmhouse in Hay-on-Wye in Wales. The agenda – to recline together in a ritual of relaxation and idleness for the week. Over the excruciatingly long week, the undercurrents of tension, dread, contempt and in some cases even lust bubble up to the surface like a rain-swollen peat bog.
In one car going to the cottage is Richard and his coltish and young wife Louisa. Also Louisa’s nasty, queen-like teenage daughter Melissa, from her first marriage. Travelling in the other car is Angela’s family. Her husband Dominic is a man who has slipped through the cracks of society with a hapless job at Waterstones and an indifferent attitude to everything. Their children are Benjy a fervently imaginative and hyperactive young child; teenage daughter Daisy who is inexplicably devout to Jesus despite the chagrin of her peers; and the eldest son Alex – athletic, warrior-like and sex-mad.
Just like in his previous book ‘A Spot of Bother’, Haddon manages to make the mundane extraordinary. In the beginning of the book Haddon compiles marketing material of the cottage in an unexpected way.
Stunning views of the Olchon Valley…Grade 2 listed…sympathetically restored…a second bathroom added…large private garden…shrubbery, mature trees…drowning hazard…mixer taps…a tumble dryer…no TV reception…£1,200 per week…all reasonable breakages…American Express…the septic tank…
It’s in these everyday words and their natural fidelity to each other, that these often overlooked banal details become beautiful, and come roaring into life.
The whole book is filled with exquisite moments of pure consciousness. It’s the troubled stream of consciousness of characters who are cracked, damaged and hurt by ghosts long gone. They are harangued by their own egos, needs and wants. In some cases these people are monstrous. However mostly they’re just human, fragile in their varying ways. This one is not to be missed. It’s so beautiful and sorrowful. The language is so vivid and alive it practically dances off the page.