‘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