Thursday, 17 May 2012

A Holiday From Hell

It's very true that when people gather at funerals they often say to long lost relatives that they must never leave it so long before meeting up again. It's usually just words and those relatives remain distant until an obscure uncle or aunt passes away. In "The Red House", Mark Haddon's latest novel, early middle aged brother and sister Richard and Angela, buck that trend after their mother's funeral and get back together when Richard arranges a holiday cottage near Hay on Wye on the Welsh Borders and invites Angela and her family for a week's break.

Richard is a successful physician with a new wife and a teenage step-daughter. Angela is married to Dominic who has been significantly less successful than Richard in his career. They have three kids, eight year old Benjy and his teenager brother and sister Alex and Daisy.

The book explores the relationships between the eight characters over the week's break. All have problems - some problems are greater than others but, suffice to say, nobody is in the perfect mood to spend time with a bunch of near strangers and the holiday is predictably a time of tension rather than relaxation.

The bucolic setting reminded me a little of Posy Simmonds' Tamara Drewe comic strip and film but, although there is an opportunity for humour in the situation, it is instead a story of angst. And there is so much angst! Apart from young Benjy, no character has much to smile about and even poor Benjy has his parents to fret over. I feel that this is an aspect of the novel that lets it down. Nobody is upbeat and, because Mark Haddon chooses to write in an unusual (though granted extremely clever) style of hopping from viewpoint to viewpoint to the extent that I frequently found myself turning back a page to see which character was the subject of a particular passage it can at times be a very difficult read. Although the necessity to do this eased as I gradually got into the book and understood the characters I found another technique used by the author ( jumping from the past to the present tense) caused the novel to be somewhat disjointed and I found it a fairly stilted read.

There are some beautiful similes and the story is written in an extremely evocative and atmospheric way that makes the reader almost feel wet from the interminable Borders' rain but I didn't like the characters enough to empathise with them and, whilst I would give an arm and a leg to be able to write so well, I would rate this as four rather than five stars.