The 1980s computer game Little Computer People was an enjoyable but ultimately frustrating experience. As something of a virtual dollhouse, the program set up tiny residents in a tiny house, where players could watch them all going about their business. Eventually, though, the lack of focus grew wearying, just as it does with Mark Haddon’s conceptually similar The Red House. Haddon, who first achieved acclaim for his wonderfully inventive The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, now seems addicted to trying shifts in perspective and point of view, and his choices causes problems for The Red House, his first adult novel since 2006’s A Spot Of Bother. What should be a moving story of a long-estranged family coming to a kind of understanding is hurt by Haddon’s attempts to tell the story of a vacation week from the perspectives of all eight vacationers. He rarely stays with one person for more than a page, and most point-of-view shifts last only a paragraph. The lack of a primary protagonist is part of the point, but it’s hard to care equally about all these people and their separate concerns.
The two siblings at the story’s center—to the degree it has one—are Angela and Richard, who have long had a distant relationship, thanks to their father’s death when they were young and their mother’s subsequent dissolution into an alcoholic waste. Angela and her husband Dominic have three children—Alex, Daisy, and Benjy—and Richard has recently married Louisa, the mother of another teenage girl named Melissa. Angela and Richard are hoping to patch up their relationship. Dominic is running from an affair turned sour. Daisy is struggling to come to terms with how little anyone in the family cares about her passionate Christian faith. Melissa wants nothing less than to be stranded in the country with these people. Angela and Louisa each have traumas in their past they’re hoping to escape. Alex is struggling with growing toward manhood. And on and on.
Haddon bounces between all of these characters so incessantly that the whole thing becomes an exercise in attempting to figure out who’s where and who’s doing what for roughly the first third of the novel. Once readers are accustomed to Haddon’s style, the process may seem smoother, but it never works as well as he wants it to. It also doesn’t help that Haddon can’t resist making the book about Everything, to the point where there’s an unseen ghost wandering the edges of the narrative to fret about death and nothingness. Haddon also occasionally pulls back into an all-seeing narrator’s voice to lecture his characters about all of the things going wrong on the planet that they simply don’t care about. At times, The Red House reads like a parody of “serious” literary fiction about dysfunctional families, right down to the predictable banality of the family’s ultimate concerns.
And then at the end, Haddon pulls everything together and sticks the landing. Some concerns are let go, while others remain to fester. Haddon grows a little too fond of having characters switch destinies, so someone who was on an upward trajectory when entering the vacation house is now headed down, while their rough counterpart heads in the opposite direction. But he finds real moments of connection and meaning in the book’s final two sections, and he suggests that these people have all found at least some of what they came together to discover.
In particular, Haddon seems fond of Daisy, and conveys that fondness well. (He seems to hold Dominic in utter contempt, which drags down those sections of the narrative.) Daisy becomes a touchstone to hang onto, someone who’s discovering a great deal about herself by being cut off from everything she thinks she knows. In her all-too-infrequent sections, Haddon conveys both the frustrations of adolescence and the sheer potential of becoming someone new, of growing toward adulthood and realizing with a laugh that everything she thought about herself was incorrect. When the book focuses on Daisy, it sings. Haddon also does a good job with building Richard—a seemingly closed-off, unemotional man when the book begins—toward the sort of minor epiphany that might ultimately change a life for the better.
Unfortunately, Haddon seems to have learned entirely the wrong lesson from Curious Incident. Where that book was a winner because it was so relentlessly focused on one point of view, Haddon seems to believe it worked because of the inventiveness of the technique. There are good stories lurking around every edge of The Red House, but Haddon never trusts himself enough to settle in and just tell one or two of them—or, possibly better, tell the eight in sequence as a series of interlocking short stories. Haddon remains an acute, wonderful observer of human nature, but his tendency to rush off to the next thing leaves readers staring at the little people running around his literary dollhouse, and wishing for the ability to zoom in on one room for a bit longer.