The Red House by Mark Haddon – A Book Review

As a huge fan of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of the Dog In the Night-Time, I was delighted to receive an advance copy of his latest work The Red House (though it is in stores by now).  I was cautious, though, because while I loved his first book, I did not enjoy A Spot Of Bother, his second novel, nearly as much.

The Red House falls somewhere in between.

I have to admit, in the beginning, the book absolutely captivated me.  The Red House is the story of a middle-aged brother and sister meeting in the country at a charming little cottage.  The sister, Angela, has brought along her husband, teenage son and daughter, and a pre-teen boy.  The brother, Richard, is accompanied by his beautiful wife he has just married and her difficult teenage daughter.

I’ll get to the characters in a moment, but they are not what initially ensnared me.  The book’s structure is what really got me excited.  The book is broken into days instead of chapters, each representing a countdown to when the families’ holiday is over.  Furthermore, each “day” is chopped up by a character’s particular perspective, and Haddon works tirelessly to make each character’s voice and point of view unique.  Though I should probably be ashamed to admit it, I especially relished each vignette because, by and large, most of them were not more than a few paragraphs long.  This meant that I could pick the book up at any given moment, read for a few moments, and then put it down and still feel as though the story was uninterrupted.

The style of the book made it a very quick read and, considering the numerous plots, assured it kept a nice pace.

While I enjoyed Haddon’s characters, truthfully, I didn’t feel most of them broke any new ground.  Angela, the seemingly most mundane of them, ended up interesting me more because, in my opinion, her development proved the most radical.  The rest of the characters, while appealing, really dealt with things we’ve read about before or perhaps even experienced.  Maybe that was Haddon’s point, though?  Even though I’d read their general plots before, that admittedly did not make me like them any less.

I will say that next to Angela, another character that was meant to be the second most mundane was thrust into a plotline that I felt was the most forced and even patronizing.  I won’t go into detail for fear of spoiling things, but had this character progressed with either one or the other storyline, I would have been fine with it, but to juxtapose the two developments for this one character simply did not feel consistent with her previous characterization and, as I said, came off as something more political in nature than an organic evolution.

To conclude, The Red House did not recapture the lightning in a bottle that was The Curious Incident Of the Dog In the Night-Time, but it was a really interesting character study, particularly in regards to Angela, and executed an unusual technique that I felt only enhanced the overall story.

The Curious Incident Of the Dog In the Night-Time by Mark Haddon – A Book Review

They say never to judge a book by its cover, but with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, that is exactly what I did.  Sorry, folks, but I simply could not resist the orange cover with the cut out image of an upside-down dog.  I thought to myself, “If that novel is anywhere near as interesting as the cover, I’ll have spent my money well.”  Guess what?  I did.

Simply reading the back cover of this book, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect, or so I thought.  Well, my friends, I was wrong.  Our protagonist, Christopher, according to the back of the book, decides to investigate the murder of a neighborhood dog.  Oh, and he knows every country’s capital in the world and all the prime numbers up to 7, 057.  Oh, and he hates anything involving the color yellow.  Oh, and he can’t tolerate being physically touched.  You would think I would have been smart enough to figure it out.  I wasn’t.  Christopher is autistic.

Suddenly, the book took on a whole new dimension.  I don’t know anything about autism beyond what I learned in Rain Man, and no matter how much I love that movie, I know that Hoffman’s character was only a glimmer into the world of autism.  I was very excited when I found out that the author, Mark Haddon, had worked with autistics quite a bit as a younger man.  I really trusted him to give me an accurate depiction of this world I knew nothing about.

Well, I still don’t know how accurate his depiction was, but I do have to admit that it made for fascinating reading.  While the murder of the neighborhood dog is an interesting concept, it was made even more so by using the unique perspective of Christopher.  You must understand that Christopher doesn’t think the way that we think.  Christopher doesn’t experience emotion the way we experience emotion.  Having said this, however, this book proves that Christopher is not so different from us at all. 

Christopher takes us for a very interesting journey as he deals with real life issues in a manner that we, surprisingly, can relate to quite easily.  Granted, the specifics of how he deals with them are unusual; for instance, I don’t believe that most of us will run through all of the prime numbers we possibly can in order to calm ourselves, nor do I believe that most of us determine what sort of day we will have by the number of red cars we see in the morning.  We all experience fear, loss, and disappointment, however, and those are some of the unifying experiences of being a human being.  I’m really afraid I can’t tell you much more about the book without spoiling virtually everything, but you’ll have to take my word when I say there are some really interesting, and unexpected, developments.

Okay, so let’s talk about style.  When you’re writing from the perspective of a character that is not likely to express emotion in a forthcoming manner, there tends to be a lack of emotional punch.  Instead, the author presents his character in such a fashion that it is quite easy to empathize with his situation, if not with the character himself.  Meaning, we may not understand his thought processes, but we certainly do understand how WE would feel if put in his situation.  We think about how we would react, and then we read how he reacts. 

There are many, many, many digressions as our protagonist stops to delve into all sorts of explanations on math problems, science lessons, as well as present many diagrams aiding in their depiction.  Happily, these are not speed bumps in the story, although it may sound otherwise.  Rather, as already stated, the whole book features the perspective of a boy who is autistic and the book must be true to that perspective at all times.  The fact is-that is the way he thinks!  To expect a tone other than what it being presented in the novel is quite unreasonable.

So, I would recommend that you read this novel.  It is a captivating study in character and style, and also quite informative.  It is atypical in almost every manner, and for me, that’s a great experience.  And seriously, don’t you want to know who murdered the dog?  It’s not who you would expect.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon – A Book Review

I truly enjoyed Haddon’s novel the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, so I had rather high hopes for his latest release.

While entertaining, A Spot of Bother cannot compare to the originality of Haddon’s previous work.  With a curious incident of the dog in the night-time, Haddon gave me something I’d never seen before with his brilliantly rendered protagonist.  A Spot of Bother, on the other hand, is essentially about a dysfunctional family’s attempts at dealing with a potential wedding. 

While Haddon’s characters are completely flawed, they never become complex, and for me that proved disappointing.  What I mean is, sure, the father is completely neurotic and perhaps even insane, but only in the stereotypical way we would imagine.  From there we’ve got the proper mother who struggles with her illicit acts, a gay son who can’t commit, and a divorced daughter who is raising a child of her own while trying to maintain a relationship with a man she may or may not marry.  Their plights are complex, but they are not.

I don’t want you to misunderstand-this book is totally readable.  It never failed to capture my interest, it moved along quite rapidly, and, at moments, it was utterly hilarious.  But, while my praise above is true, it never broke new ground.  It would probably make a perfect mainstream movie, and that’s my biggest issue with it.

In summation, if you’d like to read about all the events that can go wrong leading up to, during, and after a wedding that may or may not ever actually take place, this is the book for you.  If you’d like to read groundbreaking work with one of the most original characters I’ve ever come across, read Haddon’s other novel entitled the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.