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.