The Red House – A Review

October 8, 2012

Book Reviews

‘Prayer, faith, redemption, consolation, how did you hold the world together without these things?’

The Red House

The Red House by Mark Haddon is not just another ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novel out to spill the emotions of its characters on the freeway of time. It is a startling, multi-tiered story with an accelerated zigzag across lives, juxtaposing images from the past and present that cascade over each other as if in a time-warp. It has also been narrated from almost as many points of view as there are characters.  It is the kind of book where the world has been turned inside out in an unsorted jumble, offering vistas of life and nature through the unique filters of highly strung characters.

Mark Haddon, who has largely been recognised as a children’s author, has recently been training his focus on intense dramas reverberating within families. The Red House puts together two dysfunctional families of Angela and Richard, estranged siblings, which apart from sparking the usual hating, caring, lusting, hurting and forgiving, does lead to unveiling of the true faces, rattling the cupboard of skeletons all along.

As landscapes ebb and flow past the cold window of the train carrying Angela, her mind battles with images of her mother’s recent funeral.  Richard, her brother has arranged a holiday rendezvous of the extended family at a rented house tucked among verdant hills. Angela is accompanied by her sly husband, cocky teenaged son, troubled Christian daughter, and the eight year old son. Richard is also headed to the same destination in his swanky car along with his pretty six-month-old wife and cute but nasty stepdaughter.  Richard is paying for the holiday hoping to rekindle the bond with her sister and propelling the two families closer. We discover soon that all of these characters are troubled and tormented in their own way, stranded in little private hells. Angela seems the most scarred of all what with a suffocating past and a defunct married life. She is harbouring many grudges against his brother and their deceased mother. To confound her woes, the ghost of her stillborn daughter keeps visiting her. Her husband, Dominic, has not only stopped working but is also having an affair. Embattled by her feelings, Daisy has embraced the Church at the tender age of sixteen. Alex cannot control his predatory instincts towards attractive girls and women. The little boy Benjy is forever battling imaginary characters and of late has been troubled by the phenomenon of mortality. Richard is facing an enquiry which is threatening to derail his professional life. Richard’s stepdaughter Melissa has driven one of her classmates to a failed suicide by her devil-may-care attitude. She would soon drive a wedge between Louisa and Richard too, her mother and stepfather.

Members of the two families quickly fall out with each other and the raw beauty of nature threatens to accentuate their dark conditions. The Red House becomes a hotbed of fission and friction and many-faced tugs of relationships through the course of the next seven days. They struggle frantically to get hold of meaning in the “great sliding nothing”. And the forced proximity to each other induces a roller coaster of emotions, hastening their journeys to their individual denouements.

Haddon has chosen Impressionism as a potent weapon to map the psychological terrain of his cast. True to the overall tone of the book, streams of memories, thoughts, quotes and dialogues, both present and past, wallow in a permanently dusky mixture, at times indistinguishable from one another.  Use of italics script instead of quotes for conversations is a clever ploy, even if unsettling. Haddon tends to unleash a smorgasbord of images from the surroundings and memories of a character, often obliterating the line between the present and the past. “You look around and it occurs to you that this isn’t real, this is only a memory that you could let go and topple into that great windy nothing and it wouldn’t matter. What frightens you is that for a couple of seconds you can’t remember where the present is and how to get back there.”

Characters are well-tended elements of the The Red House. Indeed, some of them are memorable psychological portrayals. There is a powerful feeling of being trapped in one’s circumstances; fetters slipped in by the entrenched customs, familial bonds and societal expectations. It is as if one were trapped in a barren expanse, life chipping away inevitability minute by minute, second by second and there was absolutely nothing one could do about it. “Places remained and time flowed through them like wind through the grass. Right now. This was future turning into the past. One thing becoming another thing. Like a flame on the end of a match. Wood turning into smoke. If only we could burn brighter. A barn roaring in the night.”

Haddon has created a loveable character in Benzy who bears the sterling mark of the ace writer of children’s books. Apart from offering exquisite glimpses into a child’s consciousness, Benzy provides comic relief in many constricting moments.

Haddon has used many motifs in the book of which a general lack of control over one’s predicament, ‘a barn roaring in the night’ and the ‘smashed plate, so hard to see the broken pattern’, are repeated many times in the book. Indeed, the ‘smashed plate’ has also mutated to a thoughtful cover that the book sports.

It would be unfair not to mention the discomfort that the unique style of Haddon may cause to an early reader. Some may find the volleys of fragmented sentences and the philosophical musings of cosmic scale gratuitous at times. However, once in the middle of the gathering storm in The Red House, it will be hard to turn one’s face away.

The Red House

Author: Mark Haddon

Publishers: Jonathan Cape

Pages: 264

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About umashankar

I am just a watcher then. Sometimes I watch life. Sometimes I watch death. Many times I watch in between...

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45 Comments on “The Red House – A Review”

  1. Latha Says:

    Yayyy…first again…:) next on my list.


  2. Sridevi Datta Says:

    Never read a Stream -of- consciousness novel…never read Mark Haddon…but this has really got me interested to read the book 🙂


  3. Jas Says:

    I have read “The Curious Incident of Dog in the Night Time” and enjoyed it though it was in young adult fiction. I am sure I am going to enjoy this one too. A detailed review as usual 🙂


  4. manju Says:

    Wow! Sounds like a very intense novel!

    I haven’t read anything by Mark Haddon. I will now. 🙂


  5. Bikramjit Singh Mann Says:

    You know Uma sir I feel lost reading all the reviews , it just makes me look such an idiot , I have not even heard of the author. God dont know what world i live in ..

    the books seems to be intense as manju mam says..

    and no i am not humouring you 🙂


    • umashankar Says:

      To be honest, Bikram, I also discovered Mark Haddon the previous month! You are an excellent reader of reviews and I can see you jumping to the books soon! Cheers!


  6. sudhagee Says:

    Very happy to find that you enjoyed the book as much as I did. And if I did not say it before, great review, Umashankar 🙂


  7. Richa Says:

    Looks like you are doing plenty of reading these days! The book hardly sounds like young adult fiction with the relationships and complexities. Great review and I learnt a new word – Smorgasbord!


  8. Uma Says:

    A professional review of the book …great writing !!


  9. alkagurha Says:

    Its a pleasure to read your posts…there is so much to learn for budding writers.


  10. chsuresh63 Says:

    As usual, a riveting review


  11. Debopam Banerjee Says:

    I never read Mark Haddon….. Thinking to have a go at one… Thanks for this nice review….


  12. ilakshee Says:

    Your review compels one to pick up the book! Have to read this now 🙂


  13. The Fool Says:

    Hm.. Yet another interesting review. You keep giving so many new recommendations these days. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, (the books recommended by you) But I have promises to keep, (My current to read list )And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep (So much old literature and new literature being created by the day)


    • umashankar Says:

      Sad, but true. You have put it so poetically. Even I am having an ever-increasing backlog of over 30 books…. And then there are so many getting added by the day!


  14. Rachna Parmar Says:

    I haven’t read Mark Haddon at all. Your review is good. I hardly have any time these days and haven’t picked up a new book in a while :(.


    • umashankar Says:

      Rachna, I have an excruciating six-day work schedule that earns me the daily bread. And I get the same number of hours in the day. I am still able to read because I want to read. As they say, where there is a will, there’s a way!

      Many thanks to you.


      • Rachna Parmar Says:

        Hats off to you for that. But remember I am a mom, and I work in the house as well as professionally :). The kids had their exams and everyone was sick including the dog. You can’t begin to imagine how hectic my schedule is :(. But, you are right! If it is something really very engrossing then I find time. But, I’ve not been able to pick up a book, of late, I guess I am prioritizing. I will come back and read all the reviews when I am ready to pick up the next book :).


        • umashankar Says:

          “Two knights went into a forest and they both saw a shield under a tree at the same time. The first knight claimed that he saw a golden shield but the second insisted it should be a silver one. They had an argument over the color of the shield. The two argued so hard that they decided to have a duel to settle this matter. They fought for days but none of them would call it a quit and surrender. While they were attacking each other and both fell to the ground, they discovered that one side of the shield was golden and the other, silver.”

          Guess we need to fall on the ground! 😀

      • sharmila Says:

        Agree USP, reading is something I just can not do without so I stay up late and indulge but then writing has become irregular .After clinic, teaching,supervising college and 9th grade studies with kids,home,grocery,cooking …there is only so much one can pack in a day !! I can completely understand Rachna’s position also ,it becomes tough sometimes 🙂


        • umashankar Says:

          Life and the dilemmas! But read one must. I never get to sleep more than four or five hours except for the Sundays when I try to repay the debt to nature by remaining somnolent for more than twelve hours. 😀

  15. Personal Concerns Says:

    Truly admire the levels of sensitivity with which you engage while reviewing a work. It is quite inspiring to say the least. Stream of consciousness – my only author from that genre thus far is Virginia Woolf. Does this one differ remarkably from her style? Sorry, I am assuming that you have read Woolf (thanks to the impression of being a ‘readaholic’ that this blog of yours seems to give away to a person of limited literary span as I am 🙂 )



    • umashankar Says:

      Virginia Woolf was one of the pioneers of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. Yes I have read Mrs. Dalloway and it is quite a treasure. Woolf’s writing is more a sustained internal monologue and it rarely allows the reader off the hook. Colours of the underlying emotions retain their hue across the time. There is also a sense of the present lurking somewhere close by.

      Mark Haddon does owe his style to the original pioneers of the art. However, his snatches from the time are more acute with emphasis on their sensory impact. He has also experimented with the dialogue reducing it to italics and thus allowing it to lose the sense of time. There are times when Haddon’s narrative shoots off in a cosmic trajectory.


  16. Zephyr Says:

    This is the second review of Red House, the first one being Sudha’s. Both of you have recommended it highly and I have already booked my copy from her to read 😀 Hope I enjoy it too.


  17. pchandra Says:

    Mr Pandey, reviews are raining cats and dogs on your blog! Remember, I am loving all of them even when I am not commenting!!! I loved the review of the Booker prize winning book ‘The sense of an ending’ too. Will you please tell me which book I should read first – Mr Barnes’s or Mr Haddon’s The Red House?


  18. Ghazala Hossain Says:

    This may sound patronizing but you do have a knack for reviews. The way you started made me immediately want to lay my hands on it 😀


  19. Nirvana Says:

    Wow!! Never read Haddon. But most certainly will, after this review. And you seem to have put in a life to all the characters already! Thanks


  20. wanderlustathome Says:

    He is son’s current favorite author , ‘The Curious Incident..’ and ‘boom!..’ read many times over. 🙂 And I m half way through his ‘A Spot of Bother’. Love the way his characters think and the comments that they come out with – sugar coated bitter facts of life


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