Take two families, related families actually, and have them holiday together. They spend a week together in a neutral place, a holiday home, and interact and relate to each other, and attempt to be one big happy family. This is the plot, in brief, of The Red House by Mark Haddon (Jonathan Cape, 2012, pp. 264). But families are never simple are they, and the families here are no exception. And therein lies the extraordinariness of this book.
Richard and Angela are brother and sister, siblings who have buried their mother recently. Estranged for many years now, they don’t really feel like “brother and sister, just two people who spoke briefly on the phone every few weeks or so to manage the stages of their mother’s decline” (p. 6-7). A week after their mother’s funeral, Richard invites Angela and her family to holiday with him and his family. A surprised Angela accepts.
For Richard and Angela, this week gives them a chance to try to put their estrangement behind them and forge a new relationship. It is a week where 4 adults and 4 children try to “bond” with one another. So who are these 8 “family” members?
Angela is the older of the two siblings. She is around 43, a school teacher and with a lot of resentment within her. She resents the fact that her mother loved her brother more; she also resents the fact that Richard was the one financed their mother’s care. She still thinks about Karen, her still-born daughter who would have been 18 had she lived. Angela thinks that she sees Karen’s ghost everywhere.
Dominic is Angela’s husband. He is a former musician and is working in a bookstore. He is having an affair with Amy, a customer at his bookshop, though the rest of his family are unaware of it. He considers himself to be a good father and has a soft corner for Daisy, his daughter.
Alex is Angela and Dominic’s eldest child. He is 17, a fitness freak and hates violence. He fantasises about making out with Melissa, his Uncle Richard’s stepdaughter.
Daisy is Angela and Dominic’s middle child and only daughter. She is 16 and having “discovered religion” has become a source of worry for her mother and the butt of jokes among her friends. She looks forward to becoming friends with Melissa.
Benjy or Benjamin is 8 years old and is Angela and Dominic’s youngest child. He is fascinated by words like ‘crap’ or ‘poo’ and wants to use these words as often as he can. Having faced the death of his grandmother, he is worried about what will happen to him in case both his parents die.
Richard is around 42 and a radiologist by profession. He has remarried for the second time about 6 months back and acquired a step-daughter, Melissa, in the process. He has a superior and patronising attitude to people around him and expects to resolve or mend or rediscover the relationship between his sister, Angela and himself during this holiday.
Louisa is Richard’s wife. This is a second marriage for Louisa as well, and she is very keen to make this one work. She believes that Richard can make her happy something that her father, brothers and first husband were unable to do. She is alternately indulgent and strict with her only child, Melissa.
Melissa is Louisa’s 16-year old daughter from her first marriage. She is a sassy, foul-mouthed teen, who is has no inclination to socialise with Richard’s family. She is not above a bit of bullying and together with her friends in school has been responsible for a classmate attempting suicide.
The week-long holiday begins on a Friday when both Richard’s and Angela’s families arrive at the holiday home and ends the next Friday when both families leave. The book is divided into days, one for each day spent at the Red House, a restored heritage house and,
…a house stately and severe and not a farmhouse. Tall sash windows, grey stone laid in long, thin blocks, a house where Eliot or Austen may have lodged a vicar and his fierce teetotal sisters. (pg. 21)
The week spent together is a glimpse into the workings of a family — that societal institution/unit that we all belong to and love or love to hate, and sometimes even hate to love. The interaction between the 8 principal characters reveal the complexities of families. Sometimes loving and caring, and at other times judgmental and questioning. Sometimes comforting and nourishing, and at other times patronising and cloying. Claustrophobic, cruel, demanding, controlling… we see it all. It is a time where past, present and even the future merges. Though the focus is ostensibly on Richard and Angela, other relationships also come into focus—Richard and Louisa, Daisy and Angela, Angela and Dominic…
The pace of the book is slow and unhurried, but steady, and builds enough anticipation in the reader. Narrated from multiple perspectives of all the 8 characters, the move from one to the other is smooth and takes the reader along whenever the shift happens. Haddon’s writing is simple and easy, and one that makes the most complex of interactions so real. And the reason is because of excellent characterisation. Each of the 8 people in this book could be real, and probably are in the sense that we would have met or know someone like them. I thought this exchange between Angela and Benjy (pg. 42) was simply superb.
What would happen if you and Dad died at the same time?
What would you like to happen?…
I’d like to go and live with Pavel [Benjy’s friend].
I’d have to check that with Pavel’s mom.
But what will happen to my toys?
You’d take them with you.
What about the television?
Hasn’t Pavel already got a television?
But what about our television? He was on the verge of tears.
You can have the television.
I’ve changed my mind. I want to go and live with Daisy
Or take the part where the futility of rigid beliefs are discussed (pg.153):
One person looks around and sees a universe created by a god who watches over its long unfurling, marking the fall of sparrows and listening to the prayers of his finest creation. Another person believes that life, in all its baroque complexity, is a chemical aberration that will briefly decorate the surface of a ball of rock spinning somewhere among a billion galaxies. And the two of them could talk for hours and find no great difference between one another, for neither set of beliefs make us kinder or wiser.
The Red House grew on me, slowly, steadily, unhurriedly much like the pace of the book itself. I particularly liked Haddon’s gentle prose describing simple things, like silence for example (pg.19):
That silence, like a noise all by itself, with all other noises inside it, grass rubbing together, a dog yapping far off.
If there is one thing I did not like about this book, it was the excessive use of italics. All dialogues in this book are italicised and reading so much of italicised text became a major irritant. I can’t think of any explanation for this extensive of usage of italics apart from it being a design statement !
The book cover is an inspiration, and deserves special mention. Designed by Paul Willoughby, it has to be one of the best book covers that I have seen in recent times. It depicts a cracked piece of china or one that has been joined together, depending upon your point of view. When you run your hand over the book cover, you can feel that crack or the joint.
It makes you wonder whether this is about a broken family or a family that has made peace with its past and is willing to make a new beginning, build new relationships. Much like life itself.
PS: This book was sent to me for review by Random House India and the views expressed here are my own.