Mark Haddon The Red House Vintage 2013 (2012)
A week in a holiday cottage away from the city; what could be more idyllic? Escape to the country, forget your woes, chill out, enjoy yourself.
Except it doesn’t always work out that way, does it? Because when you go you inevitably — if unconsciously — pack up your troubles in your luggage. And then you spend the week trying to ignore them, only to have them appear whenever you least expect it, or be picked over by others you hoped you’d never see again. Hell is other people, Sartre declared. But true hell is people with destructive secrets. Hell is you.
Siblings Angela and Richard have been estranged for some time. A father they barely knew, a recently deceased mother who had dementia, then an opportunity for them and their respective families to come together on neutral ground, to become re-acquainted, to rebuild bridges. A liminal world: a holiday just before the 2010 UK general election and a change of government; a cottage on the borders of Wales and England; the world turning, ghosts emerging to haunt the living; a solitary fox appearing, and the Venerable Bede’s sparrow recalled:
“It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”
So it is with the two families, insensible of secrets, ignorant of what the future may bring. A fateful stillbirth, a secret and doomed affair, fear of dementia, a failed employment, concern over a professional misconduct case, sibling resentment, relationships cooling. And that’s just the adults. Throw in troubled teenagers with their own preoccupations and concerns over sexual orientation, add in an anxious introspective child, and the powder keg is well and truly primed.
Mark Haddon’s novel is a cracking read, and I defy any reader not to recognise at least some of the situations described as touching on their own experiences, and not to empathise with successive individuals. Short little scenes present an encounter from one point of view, then we view another encounter from someone else’s train of thought. Haddon manages to vividly capture the internal as well as spoken voices of each of the eight fellow travellers — Angela, Dominic, Alex, Daisy, Benjy, Richard, Louisa and Melissa — and make them live as individuals.
The choice of holiday reading illuminates where characters may be coming from: Stoker’s Dracula, Andy McNab’s Main Force, The Art of Daily Prayer. Threading though the text are echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the worlds of fairies, rude mechanicals and the court interact but never conjoin. Ships that pass on the night, sharing the same waters but steaming away from each other. Are matters truly resolved? Are they hell.