Tuesday, 5 June 2012

'Shuffling the day's events like cards'

I feel that I am one of the few people in the world not to have enjoyed Mark Haddon’s well-known first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Although the narrative voice of a teenage boy with Asperger’s was initially funny, in the end I found it dull, over-long, gimmicky and even a little emotionally dishonest in the way it used Christopher as a mouthpiece (there have been some criticisms that Asperger’s is portrayed in the novel in an inaccurate way e.g. Christopher’s ‘savant’ abilities with maths and physics, and his seeming lack of sexual desire). Despite all this, I felt that Curious Incident did showcase that Haddon was a good writer, and so I decided to pick up The Red House. I’m so glad I did. It’s so much better.

The Red House is primarily an intense exploration of character, focusing on two families on holiday together for a week in a cottage in the Welsh borders. Angela and Richard are siblings, but have been estranged since childhood; Angela’s husband, Dominic, and her three children, Alex, Daisy and Benji, are also on the holiday, while Richard’s second wife Louisa and stepdaughter Melissa complete the uneasy mix. Haddon’s style is fragmentary, dipping in and out of his characters’ heads and frequently following strings of associations for poetic effect. In a similar vein, he often has them refer back to thoughts they’ve had previously in shorthand to indicate an emotional state, for example when Daisy, struggling with her identity, thinks “Gemma’s Choice”, a school play that she’d remininised about earlier in which she felt she could hide herself under the ‘lime green cardigan’ of the character she’d been playing. I can understand why some readers might have struggled with this approach, but I loved it; it raised the novel away from an anatomically-precise but rather airless depiction of family ties (think Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations) into something much more imaginative and mobile. There are echoes of Ali Smith and Jon McGregor in the way that Haddon uses the most banal of everyday details to illuminate setting, as well, although he is also able to be poetic; the final line of the novel, in which a ‘red kite’ is ‘weaving its way through the holes in the wind’ illustrates this beautifully.

Not all of the characters, however, hold equal weight, and I was particularly impressed with Haddon’s handling of teenaged Daisy. Other characters are also expertly presented, but I felt that Haddon wrote Daisy’s thought processes exceptionally well; whirling, confused, and easily distracted, but with significant memories and realisations popping up with great clarity, like a series of snapshots. Daisy’s realisation about halfway through the novel means that the reader can join the dots in her earlier character development in a way they couldn’t before, and it’s a pleasure to discover the trail that Haddon has carefully laid. He captures the sense of how we think, and how we come to conclusions, with all the dead ends, loops and contradictions, brilliantly. The weak points in the novel, therefore, lie in character and not in style. Although the rapid shift of points-of-view within paragraphs meant that I sometimes lost track of who was narrating, this only happened when less-developed characters, such as Dominic or Angela, were onstage, never with Daisy, Melissa, Alex, or Richard. Angela’s mental struggle throughout the week made her narrative very difficult to follow, and as for her husband Dominic, the detail introduced early in the novel that he’s having an affair was a plotline that I thought could have been omitted. Alongside other strands in the narrative, it made the set-up feel a bit too much like the cliched ‘family secrets are revealed during a holiday’ plot-line, and didn’t seem to help much in the development of Dominic’s character or the depiction of his marriage. Nevertheless, these weak moments were few and far between.

Very much recommended – and I’m now keen to read A Spot of Bother as well.

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