Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Haddon novel a workout rather than entertainment

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Many voices singing different parts is no guarantee of harmony. That's very true of Englishman Mark Haddon's latest novel, where none of the eight clearly drawn characters seem to be singing from the same sheet.

Haddon is best known for his 2003 blockbuster, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a wonderfully evocative tale from the confused mind of a young boy with Asperger's syndrome.

Once again Haddon makes use of interior monologues to allow his characters their thoughts on other family members and the emotional gulf between them. Richard and Angela are adult brother and sister, divided by 15 years of silence and very different memories of their early years as well as their mother's final days.

Newly married Richard breaks the silence by inviting Angela and her family -- wimpy, adulterous husband Dominic, athletic and sexually awakened son Alex, suddenly religious and sexually confused teenage daughter Daisy and eight-year-old, overly imaginative Benjy -- on a holiday to share a house in Wales.

Richard is a doctor facing a malpractice investigation. His wife, Louise, has a sexually shameful past and her teenage daughter, Melissa, is vicious, angry and willing to inflict shame and pain on others. The British TV soap opera Coronation Street has nothing on these families or the storyline.

Haddon moves from character to character -- what they're thinking, what they're reading, how they understand the motivation of other family members each day of the holiday. The emotion of The Red House never lets up.

Since Haddon provides no list of characters as in old-fashioned novels, it's best to pay close attention to who's connected to whom and just who exactly is the character on a particular page. Skimming and distracted reading is not encouraged.

As the days pass, strangers get to know one another -- sometimes disastrously, sometimes revealingly -- with the possibility of correcting past misunderstandings.

In Haddon's fictional world, these are small, hard-won victories, and tentative at best.

Like the late novelist Russell Hoban, (Riddley Walker, The Mouse and His Child) Haddon is unwilling to plow the same field twice.

After writing and illustrating books for children, Haddon followed the success of the Curious Incident with A Spot of Bother in 2006, a closely studied fictional tale of the decline of a 61-year-old husband and father.

This time out, rather than writing a concerto, he has attempted a symphony. This calls for balance and an understanding of which sounds are discordant, which provide harmony and which drown out other voices entirely.

"One person looks around and sees a universe created by a God who watches over its long unfurling, marking the fall of sparrows and listening to the prayers of his finest creation," he writes in The Red House. "Another person believes that life, in all its baroque complexity, is a chemical aberration that will briefly decorate the surface of a ball of rock spinning somewhere among a billion galaxies. And the two of them could talk for hours and find no great difference between each other, for neither set of beliefs make us kinder or wiser."

Readers looking for a happy ending must look elsewhere. This is a literary workout rather than an entertainment.

Winnipeg writer and broadcaster Ron Robinson grew up in a household where raising your voice was shocking.

The Red House

By Mark Haddon

Doubleday, 264 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 J9

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