Mark Haddon is a genius.
I still haven’t read his best-known work The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but I loved A Spot of Bother.
And now The Red House has made me envy his literary talent even more.
On the surface, it’s a simple tale of two families spending a week together in a self-catering cottage on the Welsh border, near Hay-on-Wye. But page by page, master story-teller Haddon wraps you up in a darkly comic web of characters. They wrestle with history, youth, ageing, confusion, sexuality, anger…and each other.
Richard is a middle-aged doctor, outwardly successful and recently married to new second wife Louisa, who comes with the hefty baggage of feisty teenage daughter Melissa.
Estranged sister Angela arrives with shallow loser of a husband Dominic, three very different children – each with their own issues – and the ghost of stillborn daughter Karen, whose 18th birthday coincides with the week in The Red House.
There is no single central character, there is no earth-shattering incident, nobody dies and there’s no magical rapprochement between the distanced siblings. But through short sharp sentences and paragraphs, lurching from one character and small incident to the next, Haddon deftly paints a picture of disparate people coming to terms with life, if not each other.
Here’s the writer inside the head of spoiled, confused, beautiful but self-loathing 16 year-old step-daughter Melissa:
She sat on the floor between the bedside table and the wall. Laughter downstairs. She pushed the point of the scalpel into the palm of her hand but she couldn’t puncture the skin. She was a coward. She would never amount to anything. That fuckwit little boy. She should walk off into the night and get hypothermia and end up in hospital. That would teach them a lesson. God. Friday night. Megan and Cally would be tanking up on vodka and Red Bull before hitting the ice rink. The dizzy spin of the room and Lady Gaga on repeat, Henry and his mates having races and getting chucked out, pineapple fritters at the Chinky afterwards. Christ, she was hungry.
And middle-aged Angela, lost in an unhappy marriage and still grieving for a lost daughter from 18 years ago:
Angela poured boiling water over the dried mushrooms. A smell like unwashed bodies she always thought, but it was the simplest vegetarian recipe she knew. Made her want to roast a pig’s head for Melissa, all glossy cracking and an apple in the mouth. Make Benjy sad, though. Earlier she had told Dominic that she wanted to go home, and thought for a moment that he might actually agree, but he had slipped into the grating paternal role he’d been adopting more and more over the last few days. “You’ll regret it….insult to Richard….hang on in there”….Him being right made it worse, of course. Sherry, tomato puree. Risotto Londis.
The Red House is a cynically perceptive dissection of human frailty. I just hope you never meet my family, Mr Haddon.