Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Red House - Mark Haddon

What with reader's block, moving house, and not having internet for a bit, it's been a while since you had a proper review from me.  And today is no different, because I'm handing over to somebody else to write about The Red House by Mark Haddon, which I was sent as a review copy.  Tom (who recently married my best friend) spotted it on my shelves, and commented on it, so I decided it would find a better home with him.  Whether or not he ended up agreeing, you can discover below... Tom, by the by, can also be found at the blog Food, Music, God.  Over to you, Tom!

I promised Simon a while back that I'd read Mark Haddon's The Red House and review it for him, and have sincerely been reiterating that promise to him ever since whilst getting distracted by other tasks like getting married or trying to qualify as a teacher. However, the other day my mother rang me up and told me that my father had recently read The Red House and she had just started it, and so it occurred to me that now might be the time to take action and stop anyone else having to read it ever again. That way, we can pretend that it didn't happen, that Mark Haddon can still write novels with razor-sharp characters and compelling narrative, and that this clichéd series of adolescent writing exercises is the work of someone else.

The novel is about two families united by estranged siblings who are trying to reconnect with one another after the death of their ferocious mother. There's Richard, the hospital consultant who remarried recently but doesn't really know how to talk to his new wife Louisa, and may have A DARK SECRET. His estranged sister, Angela, who's haunted by the ghost of her stillborn daughter, but of course she can't tell anyone about that, and married to Dominic, who seems reasonably normal but may also have A DARK SECRET. Richard's kids - Alex, a sex-obsessed teenager; Daisy, a buttoned-up Christian who also thinks rather more about sex than she'd like; Benjy, who is eight (I think) and I can't remember much more about. Angela's daughter Melissa, who is a self-obsessed cow who's kind of hot and whom Alex fancies, of course. Then there's the house itself, allegedly the conduit for all of these stories for some reason, although that's arguably just an excuse for the fact that Mark Haddon couldn't decide which character to focus on. The house seems to know quite a lot of poetry, and it talks like a travel guide written by James Joyce.

If you think that sounds like a lot going on, you'd be right, and that's part of the problem. It's a shame, as there are some good ideas here, especially with the teenagers in the cast - Daisy's struggle with her sexuality and where it fits with her faith is clearly aiming for some wider significance, for example. Alex and Melissa's teenage angst is sharply drawn, if rather aimless, and the differences in Angela and Richard's approach to their upbringing and the effect on their families could have been channeled into something effective in the manner of Jonathan Franzen. However, it just doesn't feel like it's been edited into any kind of coherent shape. It's this huge splurge of styles and influences and this, rather than seeming ambitious, comes across as amateurish instead. It doesn't build, it doesn't have much of a climax to speak of, and the central narrative just isn't strong enough to provide any real mooring.

It's also overwritten and laden with unnecessary detail. What is one supposed to make of a passage like this:

Louisa works for Mann Digital in Leith. They do flatbed scanning, big photographic prints, light boxes, Giclée editions, some editing and restoration. She loves the cleanness and precision of it, the ozone in the air, the buzz and shunt of the big Epsons, the guillotine, the hot roller, the papers, Folex, Somerset, Hahnemühle. Mann is Ian Mann who hung on to her during what they called her difficult period because she'd manned the bridge during his considerably more difficult period the previous year.

It's like Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian", that, only about photocopying. And that's not even the worst linguistic crime in the book - reading about Angela reading modern poetry, with snippets of Robert Browning woven through the text, is pretty painful, as is Richard's attempt at reading ancient Greek poetry, not to mention the inexplicable quoting of something that seems to be an encyclopaedia about lorries.

Or what about this:

Richard slots the tiny Christmas tree of the interdental brush into its white handle and cleans out the gaps between his front teeth, top and bottom, incisors, canines. He likes the tightness, the push and tug, getting the cavity really clean, though only at the back between the molars and pre-molars do you get the satisfying smell of rot from all that sugar-fed bacteria. Judy Hecker at work. Awful breath. Ridiculous that it should be a greater offence to point it out. Arnica on the shelf above his shaver. Which fool did that belong to? Homeopathy on the NHS now. Prince Charles twisting some civil servant's arm no doubt. Ridiculous man.

If you can find another novel in which you can find a narrative reason to justify spending this much time on one of the characters brushing his teeth, I'd be interested to hear about it. It's a testament to the way that The Red House is written that the author thought that this belonged, but it is apparently a novel about the mundane and the ordinary (or so the blurb says), and so there's plenty of that. Again, perhaps it's an attempt at being clever; to impart some wonder into the everyday processes of how peoples' minds work. If you feel a sense of wonder at the above, I'd be interested to hear about that too.

You should not read The Red House. Tell your friends not to read it. If people suggest taking it on holiday, don't. If you find it in your holiday home, leave it there. It's not a good holiday book. It's not good literary fiction. No, it's not lightweight, and yet it also doesn't seem to mean anything. It's shockingly dark in places (and shockingly dull in others) and it doesn't seem to known what to do with that darkness. Curious Incident was (and still is) magnificent, thanks to an exceptionally strong narrative voice. A Spot of Bother was flawed, but still gripping and surprisingly visceral in places - and the characterisation was second to none. In The Red House, despite a couple of strong passages such as Richard's disastrous run out on the moors, there's nothing to make this stand out. It's an ambitious experiment, and perhaps an admirable one; to his credit, at least Mark Haddon is still pushing his craft and trying new things. However, it's a huge disappointment that in doing so he has moved so far away from his strengths.

18 comments:

  1. I love this review and I will never pick up this book. I was only mildly impressed with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and not at all impressed with his second book. This one sounds even worse.

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  3. Hilarious review! I want to stay far away from this book -- but I am curious about what the attempt at reading ancient Greek poetry is like.

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  4. Disappointed after The Dog book!

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    1. Maybe the inspiration of writer has dried up.

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  5. Love this review! I like a post that calls a spade a spade and isn't afraid to say Do Not Read This Book. My kids loved "Curious" but I was totally underwhelmed and I'm pleased to say I shan't read this book. Sounds like the house is the most interesting character.....

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  6. Curiously, it makes me want to try it! I do have it on my shelf, and am prepared to be underwhelmed. Wonderful review Tom.

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  7. Wow - I love a review that doesn't waffle - and I've taken The Red House off my TBR list. Thanks for the warning!

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  8. When I read the title, I was a bit stunned. Simon read a book published in this century? Then I read on and life all made sense again. :)

    Thanks for the review, Tom. I have read A Curious Incident and liked it and I have A Spot of Bother on my shelves unread. If I do opt to pick up a copy of The Red House at some point, I won’t be able to say I hadn’t been warned.

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  9. Having seen Mark Hadden at Hay last year explaining this book & the why he had written it in this style. I decided , despite all critical reviews to the contrary, that it might be worth a read. As I often "read" audiobooks ( very handy for in the bath -no soggy pages & in the car -great for catching up on all the books I mean to read!)SO , I duly purchased The Red House & started listening.
    Several chapters later, head in a spin of confusion trying to work out the characters & bath water now cold, I decided that this wasn't going to be one of Hadden's best.
    I did persevere hoping it would get better, it didn't. But I did get to the end. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone.
    Such a disappointment when he can write excellent books like A Curious Incident.

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  10. Great review! I got this from the library a while ago. Gave the cover a really good look for three weeks, and then took it back. I must have been channelling the disappointment from Mark Haddon readers the world over.

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  11. I agree with this review! I gave up on 'The Red House' halfway through.

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  12. Wow. I had this on the TBR list for my book group, and now I shall definitely delete it. How could anyone think the tooth-brushing bit was a good idea (I'm married to a dentist, and I agree that it's awful).

    So disappointing after The Curious Incident, which I loved.

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  13. Oops, I loved this book! I picked it up last summer after The Washington Post (undoubtedly the best book page in the U.S.) praised it, and I must say it was one of the best contemporary novels I read last year. It's good to judge for yourself instead of on the basis of one review.:) It is much, much better than The Curious Dog or Whatever, which I loathed.

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    1. I have just finished it and loved it too. It took a while to get used to the frequent changes of view point but I found the characters believable and the mixture interesting.

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  14. So, I found it on my shelf and read the first dozen or so pages, and was surprised to rather enjoy them. It certainly has a stream of consciousness style within the constantly changing PoVs ... I shall stick with it for a while and see whether my intial impression changes!

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  15. Love the review - hit the nails on the head with every point. Sadly I had to read this for a book club. I enjoyed Curious Incident, didn't mind A Spot of Bother but this was dire.

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  16. I think people should remember that this is one reader's opinion, and that reading is a very personal thing. I loved Curious Incident but actually found this harder to put down, having read it in its entirety in one day on holiday. The stream of consciousness prose takes a little getting used to but once you are familiar with the characters you find yourself jumping about with ease.

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