For a while Mark Haddon’s “The Red House” promises to reverse Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families being all alike, while the unhappy ones are each unhappy in their own way.
The two vacationing families in “The Red House” are miserable all through the litany of self-absorbed dissatisfactions that regularly recur in contemporary domestic fiction. Only gradually do we realize that these tediously familiar dysfunctions belong mainly to the adults — an abrasive brother and sister and one of their spouses. In Haddon’s winningly original vision, the children, or most of them, dart up through a variety of pains into a variety of hopefulnesses.
Angela and her brother, Richard, have long been estranged. He has escaped family confinement by moving away to become a successful doctor; she has resentfully remained to take charge of a druggy and alcoholic mother, and work unsatisfyingly as a teacher. After the mother’s funeral Richard hopes to mend the breach by inviting Angela, her husband, Dominic, and their three children to share a vacation house in western England along with him, his young second wife, Louisa, and Louisa’s teenage daughter, Melissa.
Haddon recounts the week of vacation ordeal in brief sections alternating among the four adults and four children. The technique has the advantage of taking in a range of incidents and viewpoints; the disadvantage of rather hurrying us along just as we are about to get engaged with each character. The engagement comes eventually but it is all something of a tasting menu.
THE RED HOUSE
The taste can be extraordinary. Haddon writes like a scalpel-wielding angel. On the trip to the vacation house: “Seventy miles per hour, the train unzips the fields.” The sideways distraction of details at the mother’s funeral: “the bandage on the vicar’s hand, that woman chasing her windblown hat between the headstones, the dog that belonged to no one.” Angela’s floaty youngest son Benjy: “a kind of boy-liquid which had been poured into whatever space he happened to be occupying.”
The adults play out their tensions. Angela, disappointed in life, verges on breakdown, hallucinating the ghostly return of a stillborn daughter. Much of the disappointment stems from her husband, Dominic, who, unable to make a career, has subsided into the role of house-husband. Amiable, showing more sympathy for his children’s problems than Angela does, Dominic conceals an affair with a nagging lover.
Richard, self-absorbed, outwardly smug in his professional success, is inwardly insecure as well as threatened by a malpractice suit. To assert his flagging vitality he goes on an imprudent hill hike, sprains an ankle, and lies there until Angela’s oldest son, Alex, rescues him. Louisa nurses him; chastened, he begins to see her for the first time as a person in her own right and not simply as an extension of his inflated ego.
Haddon has written the ins and outs of his adults with acute perception. The trouble is that, with the exception of Louisa — something of an outsider and possessed of a certain vitality — none of them really matter. He has used the finest dissection techniques on a second-rate fowl.
The children, teenagers except for Benjy, are a different matter. Haddon depicts brilliantly their voices, their problems, their mix of insight and confusion about the parents they feel part dependent on, part imprisoned by. More than that he gives them a burgeoning vitality, a sense of perilous freshness that contrasts with the tired and worn-out sensibilities of the parents.
Benjy is a child of air, living in full the fantasies and misapprehensions, comic and touching, of an 8-year-old. He is a skirling obbligato above the graver, more complex notes of his adolescent elders. “Adolescent” derives from the word for suffering; Alex and Daisy, Angela’s children, and Louise’s Melissa suffer plenty, in very different ways, but it has the elan of transformation.
Daisy belongs to a flaky Christian group whose charismatic young leader she worships. Her devotion strikes her liberal secularist parents as simply another form of adolescent rebellion. In fact, it is both profoundly genuine and an unconscious coverup. Haddon convincingly and movingly portrays Daisy as a valiant groper after identity. In the course of the vacation, she is brought painfully to face that she is lesbian: Her initial stunned refusal and subsequent acceptance — at the cost of realizing that she will have no place in her religious fellowship — is stunningly depicted.
The agent of Daisy’s conversion is Melissa. The two girls had bonded; then on a walk, Daisy impulsively kisses her. Melissa reacts savagely, calling her a “dyke.” Over the next few days Daisy’s pain and shocked indignation transform into acceptance of who she is.
Melissa is portrayed as a manipulator. She leads Alex on sexually and rejects him; she has helped make and circulate the photograph of a schoolmate having sex, leading to the girl’s attempted suicide. She is fierce and brilliant. Depicting her, Haddon succeeds in portraying not just malice but the vital surge of an adolescent feeling the need to take on adult power. “She could make people do anything she wanted, but she had no idea what she wanted.”
Finally there is Alex: hungry, confused¸ambitious, and fundamentally kind. He is the glue that holds things together; his projects, some misguided and often absurd, his efforts to achieve, and his love for Daisy and Benjy generate an energy that warms and lights up the book. In the simplest terms Haddon has used the children to project a note of future hope onto a stultified and oversatiated present.