On the surface, it appears to be two families coming together for a week’s vacation. Richard, a doctor, brings his wife Louisa and her teenaged daughter Melissa. Richard’s sister, Angela, brings her husband Dominic and their three children, Alex, Daisy, and Benjy. They’re coming together not long after the death of Richard and Angela’s mother. The two families don’t know each other very well, and that’s the primary reason for the joint vacation.
The baggage they bring with them is more than just suitcases.
Richard is facing a possible malpractice charge. Melissa and her school friends did some nasty bullying. Angela has never gotten over a miscarriage, and the daughter she lost would be turning 18 this week. Dominc, who seems to be more unemployed than employed, is having an affair. Alex seems the normal older teenaged boy with one thought on his mind, at least most of the time. Daisy has found religious faith, which makes her the odd duck out in both families. And even 8-year-old Benjy has fears of being orphaned.
All of this baggage begins to swirl together as the two families go about doing the things you do on vacation – taking hikes, visiting local sites of interest, and just relaxing. They are renting (Richard’s paying, of course) for a house in the country near the English-Welsh border. The house never becomes more than it is, but it is important as the place the families keep coming back to and the place that anchors The Red House by Mark Haddon, published in 2012.
Best known for his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Haddon is the author of several novels, young adult novels, and story collections, including A Spot of Bother (2007) and The Pier Falls. He is also an artist. He blogs under his own name.
Haddon is a master at characterization. Each of the characters gradually becomes real and recognizable. Each has a back story that will gradually be revealed, to themselves, the other characters, and the reader. Real and recognizable doesn’t automatically translate to sympathetic; but they do translate to understandable. It’s difficult, for example, to be sympathetic to a character determined to be nasty to everyone around her, even as she stumbles toward the discovery of kindness. But Haddon holds that character in tension; the reader feels it and wonders how the tension will be resolved.
The author remains true to his story; there is no great revelation or singular crisis moment that brings everything to resolution. But that’s how most families are, moving toward individual resolutions or individuals putting off what doesn’t have to be done today. Things becoming known and understood doesn’t mean things becoming resolved.
Top photograph by Filip Gielda via Unsplash. Used with permission.
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