Tag Archives: mark haddon

THE RED HOUSE by Mark Haddon


You know how some books are good for you, but kind of hard to get through, like spinach or unsweetened Greek yogurt? I am going to put Mark Haddon’s The Red House in that category. This novel by the author of the bestselling The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-time (reviewed here) is a literary experiment, often told in stream of consciousness as it shifts among the perspective of eight characters. While this writing style was inventive and sometimes powerful, in the end this book fell short for me.

The eight characters are two families: Angela and Dominic and their three children – Daisy, Alex and Benji – and Angela’s brother Richard and his wife Louisa and her daughter Melissa. Angela and Richard are estranged, but he reaches out to her a year after their mother’s death and invites her family to go on vacation with him in Wales. Angela and Dominic agree to go, even though they don’t want to be with Richard, because they can’t afford a vacation on their own.

The Red House takes place during the two weeks that the two families share the rental home in Wales. During that period, like most family vacations, there are confrontations, retreats, connections, realizations, and allegiances that shift and fade. Angela, mourning the death of her infant daughter eighteen years earlier, descends into hallucinations and depression, when she isn’t simmering with anger at her brother for not helping care for their sick mother. Daisy comes to terms with her sexual orientation, while Alex learns disturbing news about his father and flirts with his uncle’s wife. Richard tests his physical and emotional limits, while Melissa basically just glowers and acts entitled.

What makes The Red House unique is Haddon’s writing style, so different from his linear, childlike storytelling in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Here, points of view change even within paragraphs. Some sections are just lists, such as the variety of items sold in a souvenir shop the family visits on the trip, or the descriptions of figures captured in snapshots framed on the walls of the house. It can be difficult at times to figure out who is thinking, or even talking, due to the frequent perspective shifts.  Ultimately, this made it hard for me to maintain interest in the book. When I didn’t know who was being discussed, I just sort of skimmed along until I figured it out, which I found pretty distracting.

Ultimately, The Red House was sort of boring. Not much happens, and the relationships Haddon explores don’t really evolve that much. I found that I just didn’t care that much about what happened, and wasn’t particularly eager to return to the book. I listened to this one mostly on audio, which was even more challenging, given that there was only one narrator. It was especially hard to know who was talking without the visual cues of paragraph breaks and quotation marks. The audio narration was fine; it was just a difficult script to read from.

The Red House was just OK for me. If you like the idea of the stream of consciousness “prosetry” I’ve described, you may enjoy it. For me, it wasn’t my favorite.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon

Haddon The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, is a story told through the eyes of Christopher Boone, a teenager with autism who discovers his neighbor's dog dead one evening. He decides to write a book about the mystery behind the dog's death, using Sherlock Holmes (one of his favorite characters) as a model. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is nominally about Christopher's attempts to solve the mystery of the dog's murder, but his investigation leads him to much larger discoveries about his parents and their relationship with each other, and him.

Haddon narrates this book through Christopher's voice, which gives remarkable insight into the autistic mind. The story is told very literally and in a matter-of-fact tone, but the chapters advancing the plot are interpersed with ones about math, geography, biology, vocabulary and other topics that soothe and comfort Christopher's oversensitive brain. He has many patterns typical of autistic kids: he only eats foods of particular colors, he cannot stand to be touched, he is frightened of places and people he doesn't know, and he cannot process too many sensations at one time.

Most notably, Christopher is incapable of empathy. He cannot relate to what others might be feeling or how his actions may affect them, particulary his parents. He is in touch with his own feelings of anxiety, fear, or even pride, but he cannot seem to feel love or affection for other people.

While this book is very well-written and is at times quite funny, it's also very sad. One of Christopher's favorite dreams is one in which a virus has killed everyone on earth except for "special people like me" "who don't look at other people's faces and who don't know what these pictures mean" (insert pictures of sad/happy/angry faces). In the dream, Christopher knows that:

[N]o one is going to talk to me or touch me or ask me a question. But if I don't want want to go anywhere I don't have to, and I can stay at home and eat broccoli and oranges and licorice laces all the time, or I can play computer games for a whole week, or I can just sit in the corner of the room and rub a coin back and forth over the ripple shapes on the surface of the radiator.

Christopher's greatest joys in life do not have to do with other people, but with activities that he finds reassuring or comforting, or in contemplating difficult scientific and philosophical problems. Haddon beautifully paints the difficulties his parents face in raising him, and why their relationship fell apart.

I listened to most of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on audiobook. While the narrator was excellent, I recommend reading over listening to this book. The print version is filled with diagrams, drawings, equations, symbols, and even handwriting, which the listener misses out on. Also, when Christopher's mind goes into overdrive, or he tries to explain something complicated, it's easy to get distracted.

This is a very good book – highly recommended.

(Relax, FTC – audiobook came from the library and the paperback was in my personal library already.)