Publisher: Random House Publications
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Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came highly recommended and did not disappoint. Depending on how one approaches his latest offering, The Red House, one will either feel engaged or let down. The hovering presences and themes are still the same- death, family, a child’s mind, images, impressions- but the story, for the lack of a better word, is very different.
It would serve any reader best if he were to begin a book without looking for the framework of a story. To my mind that is a limiting approach and many nuances of the writing escape one because one spends too much time thinking where the “story” will lead one next. The Red House is one of those books where the plot is secondary to everything else the novel offers. Essentially, it is a book about two dysfunctional wings of a disjointed, extended family which get together on a week-long vacation to try and get along better. Does it work? Do they undergo a transforming experience that welds the members together into a united frame? It would be best to not worry about such ideas and get on with the reading.
Haddon explores situations and characters. He engages through vignettes and minor incidents. The tone of the novel is highly impressionistic. One can get lost among the paragraphs of a rush of images, sights and sounds; a pleasant kind of losing one’s bearings. It would be easy to dismiss the book as family drama on a superficial level. The greatest strength of the author is his gentle teasing apart of nuances and layers of reluctant characters. The adults are perhaps not as absorbing, but the psyches of the children, especially that of eight year old Benjy, are depicted in a fascinating manner. For anyone with even limited writing experience, it is easy to see that the hardest part of writing is to get the reader involved with the characters; mind you, not identify with but involved. Haddon has a special gift in his unique understanding of how a child’s mind functions. That is what made The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time such a pleasure to read and that is the zenith of The Red House as well.
The Red House is slow, laid-back, much like a holiday is supposed to be. Yet, Haddon manages to make the ordinary everyday absorbing with his mesmerising and detailed descriptions. It cannot match up to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, yet it is circumspect and soothing in a way that the latter could never be.