Each family vacations unhappily in its own way. In The Red House, Mark Haddon's new novel, Richard, Angela's successful and estranged brother, invites her family to mend fences after the death of their mother. Their extended families gather at a vacation rental, a red house in Herefordshire, and bring with them all the ingredients of a fiasco: rebellious teenagers, class resentment, sexual restlessness.
Richard has a new wife and teenage stepdaughter who "looked as if they had been purchased from an exclusive catalog at some exorbitant price, flawless skin and matching black leather boots." By contrast, the miserable Angela seeks comfort in Cadbury bars. And that's not to mention Angela's husband and three children, each with more issues than the last.
Haddon made a name for himself with the best-seller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a psychological portrait of a teenager with Asberger's. Before starting to write young-adult fiction, Haddon had worked with autistic children. What made "Curious Incident" so gripping, and so appealing to adults, was the utterly convincing voice of the narrator trying to work through the mystery of who killed his neighbor's dog. In that book, family dysfunction is incidental scenery to the workings of the boy's mind.
In The Red House, family dysfunction is the whole story. Haddon moves in and out of the minds of each of the family members, telling the story from eight perspectives, which mutes his gift for voice. There's Richard; his wife, Louisa; his stepdaughter, Melissa; his sister, Angela; her milquetoast husband, Dominic; and Angela's three children.
Given the author's background, perhaps it is not surprising that the children are the most fully realized. Alex, 17, is the hormonal jock with a hero complex. Daisy, 16, has taken a turn for the devout that puzzles her father and annoys her mother. Benjy, 8, is too busy fighting imaginary enemies, boom! pow!, to interact much with the others.
The plot revolves around two poles. Richard and Angela try to resolve why they didn't talk for so many years. And the rest of the family feels the pull and push of Melissa's teenage animal magnetism. This latter story line, as you might imagine, is more intriguing. Melissa is 15, queen of her friends, possessor of the right clothes. And she uses her powers for evil. Still, a popular teenager, however attractive on the outside, may not be so fascinating on the inside.
Here is one of several forays into her mind, this one in the car on the way to the red house. "Mum was smiling at Richard and doing the flirty thing where she hooked her hair behind her ear. It made Melissa think of them having sex, which disgusted her. They were in a traffic jam and Mika was singing 'Grace Kelly.' She took out a black biro and doodled a horse on the flyleaf of the Ian McEwan. How bizarre that your hand was part of your body, like one of those mechanical grabbers that picked up furry toys in a glass case at a fair. You could imagine it having a mind of its own and strangling you at night."
Melissa's interior monologue is a mix of pop culture references, panic that she is missing real life that she is sure is under way somewhere else, and strategems for how to get what she wants out of the others. Still, she has some of the most complete thoughts of any of the eight characters. Many of them think in descriptive fragments like this from Angela: "God, she wanted something to eat. Toffee, sweets, biscuits. She opened the glove compartment and a strip of photos fell out. She picked them up and turned them over. Melissa smoldering, Melissa blowing a kiss, Melissa flicking her hair. They were oddly touching." These bits and pieces are probably faithful to how people think, but accrued from eight characters they don't add up to something entirely thrilling.
Forcing a group of characters together in an enclosed space for a week is a classic story premise for a reason, and it ramps up the drama in the novel easily. Adding bad weather and taking away cell phone reception ensures that the family members will move quickly to make alliances, break them, circle each other warily, then re-engage. And the pleasure of this novel is watching the family cluster around Melissa, grow frustrated and disgusted with her, and then draw close to her again. Although there are probably one or two or three too many perspectives at play, the result is a satisfying if dark study of how families interact but fail to connect.