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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day Eight) - "The Red House" by Mark Haddon

Day Eight of my Book Advent Calendar brings us to “H” and I’ve chosen a book by Mark Haddon.  He is best known for his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and I would certainly recommend it, as well as A Spot of Bother, but I’m going to feature his most recent.

Day Eight:  The Red House by Mark Haddon
5 Stars
The plot is simple. Richard, a radiologist, rents a holiday house in the Welsh countryside with his wife Louisa and his stepdaughter Melissa. Richard invites his sister Angela, her husband Dominic, and their three children (Alex, Daisy, and Benjy) to join them. The duration of the novel is the one week of the family vacation, each day being given a separate chapter.

Not much happens; there are no dramatic events. The focus is on the inner lives of characters. The point of view constantly alternates among the eight characters. The book is written in varying degrees of stream-of-consciousness/dramatic monologue style combined with excerpts from books being read, snippets of lyrics of music being listened to, and seemingly random lists.

Because of the constantly shifting point of view, the reader gradually gets to know each character as an individual and what is really important to him/her. Secrets, anxieties, insecurities, motivations, regrets, and desires are revealed. It is this character development that is the novel’s tour de force. The author has a real talent for “peeling back those layers” (24) and revealing the person “under the veneer” (32). Often it is seemingly small observations that reveal so much. When Dominic enthuses about the amazing view at the cottage, Richard responds, “You’re welcome” (25). Those two words say so much about Richard’s personality. When he meets Louisa’s first husband who comments that “Louisa tells me you’re a doctor,” Richard is uncomfortable with his too-lengthy, muscular handshake and so feels the need to clarify: “Consultant. Neuroradiology” (55). Again these are telling words, as is a sentence on the following page: “He’d arranged his cutlery at half-past six” (56). By the time the book is finished, the reader will feel he/she has spent a week with these eight people.

Family is obviously one of the themes of the novel. Early on a definition is given: “Family, that slippery word, a star to every wandering bark, and everyone sailing under a different sky” (10). In one way or another most of the characters want to escape from their families. Louisa is embarrassed about her ”working-class roots which she was trying to escape” (102), an embarrassment she shares with her daughter who hopes to see her mother’s brothers, “Never again, hopefully” (240); Angela wants to be “off duty” from her family so she can have “only herself to please” (96); Daisy wants to run until she finds “the edge of the world and the beginning of some other place where no one knows her” (151). One character literally runs away.

Characters claim not to have anything in common with family members. Alex “recognized nothing of himself in Mum and Dad” (45) while Angela looks at her brother and thinks, “We have nothing in common, nothing” (30). Louisa thinks Richard would “have nothing in common” (224) with her brothers just as Melissa dares Daisy to “Tell me one thing [Louisa and Richard have] in common” (94). Of course this is not true as many similarities are revealed. Louisa experienced “unexpected loneliness” (107) when her first husband, who “wanted it all the time” (55), left her; Richard suffered “intolerable loneliness” (111) when his first wife, “who was so explicit about her needs” (124), left him. Angela and Benjy spend a great deal of time in the worlds of their imaginations. Dominic acknowledges he “has never really grown up” (97) and Richard unknowingly agrees with his sister (71) by thinking of himself as “a little boy” (131). Poor self-esteem is evidenced in the female cousins (123), and Richard and Benjy even have similar gestures (129).

Richard decides, “I didn’t really understand what family meant . . . . You have to work at these things” (101), and, ironically, throughout the book the characters also work at connecting with family: that “was what one wanted ultimately, wasn’t it, that connection” (60). People want to be asked, “Tell me about yourself” (17) or “Tell me more” (175) but, unfortunately, few connections are made. Sometimes people are “too distracted” (180) and aren’t “really listening” (101). Instead there are “stilted conversations” (27) and a constant “Reaching out and pulling back” (88). For example, during a conversation with his sister, Richard doesn’t know what question to ask (129). Then he learns his mistake (145) and so approaches his sister only to have her reply, “I talked to Louisa earlier. I’m not sure I can talk about it twice in one day” (163). After a conversation with Daisy, Angela realizes, “A door had opened and she’d slammed it shut” (189), but she is not the only one to do this. Richard realizes he mishandled a conversation with his daughter-in-law and promises, “Perhaps I should talk to her. . . . I won’t wear hobnailed boots this time” (234). In fact the characters seem very adept at saying the wrong thing. During a conversation with her sister-in-law, Angela realizes, “On what planet was this a good thing to say?” (82) and Alex acknowledges his “foot-in-mouth disease” (181) just as Louisa apologizes, “I shouldn’t have said those things” (197).

In the end, the message seems to be that real connection is impossible. Despite “how similar they might be after all” (240), “Everyone [lives] in their little worlds” (221). Dominic concludes, “How rarely people were together” (233). Richard realizes “And his own sister . . . ? They had the same parents, they had lived in the same house for sixteen years but he had no idea who she really was” (238). Everyone “stumbled through life failing to understand everyone” (246). Daisy’s statement could serve as a mantra for all her family members: “I am ignorant, I understand so little, I am only human” (175).

There are minor, rather than major epiphanies. Characters do realize things about themselves and others, but the insights are not earth shatteringly profound. Louisa realizes people don’t treat family members like adults (66); Angela recognizes the root cause of her resentment of her brother (101); Dominic acknowledges his character flaws (178) which his eldest son also identifies (239). Many of these insights seem insubstantial and fleeting. Daisy may have a flash “out of the blue. Her mother was a human being” (87), but her behavior towards Angela does not change. Some readers might be disappointed with the minor revelations the characters experience; like Richard they might have “expected something to be resolved or mended or rediscovered” (260). In reality, although we may think “something would change. Revelation, turning point, but it doesn’t happen” (260).

And this realism is what is great about the novel. An inability to communicate, having to say, “What I meant was” (218), and having to admit having no “idea what he[/she] was talking about” (57), especially with those closest to us, is a common problem. Many people want to escape their pasts but “we all [have] past lives that rose up” (199). We’ve all had memories evoked at odd moments: “You thought it was all gone, the house demolished, the furniture sold, photos eaten away by mildew and damp. Then you opened a tin of sardines with that little metal key” (54). We’ve all compared memories with others and discovered that “We all look back and see things differently” (208). We’ve probably all had moments of insight and then, for some reason, they lose their significance: “How pleased we are to have our eyes opened but how easily we close them again” (236). At some time we all feel “strangers to ourselves” (198) and that “Every day [we find] out more and understand less” (217). Certainly there must be others who can identify with the description of life “as a clumsy cartwheel down a long long hill, hitting this rock and that tree, a little more bruised and scratched with each successive impact till . . . what” (260)?

Many times as I was reading the novel, I thought of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”: “Between the idea/And the reality/ . . . /Falls the Shadow/ . . . / Between the emotion/And the response/Falls the Shadow”. As William J. Thomas, publisher and editor-in-chief at Doubleday, wrote, “ Mark Haddon is a master at exploring the gap between the action and the intent, between the desire to connect and its impossibility.” The style of the novel with its stream-of-consciousness style and its occasional inclusion of literary references and dense lists is reminiscent of Eliot’s poetry, especially “The Hollow Men” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which also includes sections in a foreign language and passages inserted without explanation. Admittedly, some of the passages in the novel may leave the reader perplexed: “Marja, Helmand. . . . Dawn light on wild horses in the Khentii Mountains. . . . Cadmium, arsenic, benzene. . . . Brando and Hepburn pace their silver cages . . . .Mein Irisch kind, wo weilest du? . . . Arklow Surf to White Mountains, Cymbeline to Ford Jetty . . . A girl wakes and has no time to remember the dream about the birds” (131). Nonetheless, a complete understanding of these passages is not required for an understanding of the novel’s themes, and, for those so inclined, these are puzzles to be deciphered. As with Eliot, there is also symbolism here, especially that of houses. At the beginning, there is a statement, “Behind everything there is always a house” (12) which is repeated at the end (251). In between there are several observations about houses, including references to “How eloquently houses speak” (184) and how silent they can be: “Louisa puts her hand on the bumpy wall and listens. Paint over plaster over stone. Nothing. Complete silence” (262). A wonderful image for family memories is found in Benjy’s drawing of the cottage: “the wonky lines, the weird scale, the eccentric detail, for this is how they will all remember the place, nothing quite as it was, elements added, elements removed” (259).

This is not a novel for those looking for an action-packed, escapist adventure. For those looking for realistic interpretive literature, seek no further. Reading this book is like going on a journey, and “the journey [is] the constructive thing” (259).