Treachery for most people does not result in court cases, revenge, or murder – every day people feel betrayed in myriad tiny ways, and mostly it leads to passive aggression, disappointment or verbal conflict. We make choices over where our loyalties lie in the interest of being true to ourselves, but in doing so tear ourselves in several directions.
This is the rich terrain of Mark Haddon’s moving new novel The Red House. Like his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Spot of Bother, it revolves around familial strife. Unhappily married couple Dominic and Angela take their three children – young Benjy and older teens Alex and Daisy – to stay in a rural cottage with Angela’s brother Richard, his second wife Louisa and her manipulative teenage daughter Melissa. All have secrets; all question one another’s motives.
Haddon has pushed his prose further with this book, rapidly switching between both characters and tenses to delve into personal perception and highlight moments of choice. “It’s free speech throughout the book,” explains Haddon. “You’re in and out of people’s minds, so you accept their realities.” Haddon, a poet as well as an author, revels in the Black Mountains setting, which provides a stormy backdrop to the interior claustrophobia.
As the week-long holiday progresses, the family’s interpersonal crises unravel and with them preconceptions about each other’s identities, from Dominic, the caring yet philandering father, to Louisa, who reveals a murky past. “We all argue about who we are and who other people think we are,” says Haddon. “What’s most entertaining in books is when a character does something unexpected… It’s what we sort of want from all relationships. Maybe you don’t want to discover something horrific about your partner, but you want for them to be interesting and different.”
The internal conflict is especially acute for the teenage girls: Daisy wrestles with her Christian beliefs conflicting with her fledgling sexuality, while Melissa comes to question her lack of morals. “If you’re a teenager [choices] are particularly stark,” says Haddon – but everyone is pulled in two directions. “They all need to belong somewhere else, whether through religion or sexuality or their work,” he agrees. For Angela it is the past pulling her in two, as she struggles to come to terms with the stillbirth of a daughter, Karen, 18 years before.
Most readers will know Haddon from Curious Incident, and few modern authors are as adept at portraying the fierce yet frail loyalty children feel towards parents. With so many adult traumas playing out, Benjy, the youngest son, is the heartbreaking outsider of the novel. “Children are hugely unrepresented in literary novels… authors don’t want to run the risk of seeming childish, and that’s to the detriment of otherwise great novels. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is a masterpiece but contains two children who are ciphers. They should be hugely important in the psychological drama.”
In treating each of his ensemble cast as individuals in their own right, Haddon shows himself to be a forgiving and warm writer who reveals us all to be children, searching for escape and redemption. Perhaps this is best summed up in a moment when Alex’s image of his father is shattered, and with it his world: “He wants someone older and wiser to tell him what to do, but there is no one.”
The Red House is out now, published by Jonathan Cape. Mark Haddon will be appearing at the Hay Festival on 4 June at 10am. For details see hayfestival.com/wales or call 01497 822 629.