Books
5:04 am
Sun June 10, 2012

No One In 'The Red House' Gets Away Unscathed

Originally published on Mon June 11, 2012 11:50 am

Ah, the family getaway. All of you together in one space — maybe a cabin in the mountains or a beach house. Delightful family meals, maybe some Scrabble. A time of togetherness and familial harmony.

That is decidedly not the kind of family vacation writer Mark Haddon draws inspiration from. In his latest novel, The Red House, Haddon peers inside the messy dynamics of a group of relatives, each grappling with their own fears and trying to make sense of themselves as a family, all while stuck in a vacation house in the remote English countryside.

"I think a holiday home is a milder version of the burning building scenario," Haddon tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "All our frameworks are taken away ... we're in our own company for an extended period of time. So there's the pressure of the house and there's the absence of work, and I think in those situations, we tend to find out more, and sometimes a little bit too much about ourselves and those who are close to us."

The Red House braids together themes of sexual identity, parental insecurity and sibling rivalry, and no one gets away unscathed. "Everyone changes, everyone comes away different to a greater or lesser extent at the end of the book," Haddon says, and not everyone gets a neat resolution.

"If you're going to be a naturalist, you can't be melodramatic. You can't tie things up at the end. You can't have a real sense of closure, because we never do get closure," he says. "But the advantage of having it over the period of a holiday is you just snip off the story on that last day. The house stays, they get into their cars, they go away."

The house itself is as much a part of the story as Haddon's characters.

"I can walk round that house in my mind and know every single detail about it," he says. In fact, he recently vacationed with his own family in a town near where the house would stand, were it real. "And I drove ... to try and get a picture of the place where the house isn't, as it were," Haddon laughs. "But the weather round there is absolutely appalling, and the fog was so thick that I stood at this gate and all I could see was a sheer wall of white. So I rather like the idea that the place where the house isn't was trying to hide from me."

Haddon says the English language itself could almost be considered a character in the story. "There are certain places in the book where everyone else is asleep, or they're all off somewhere else, and ... the narrative voice seems to sort of drift off up through the roof and into space, and backward and forward in time," he says.

Haddon contrasts his use of language in The Red House with that in a previous novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. "I have to admit now that it probably was a successful book, but there was something that wasn't in there, which was any poetry whatsoever," he says. "So it was great to be able to get that poetic voice into a book at long last ... I don't think I've written a book until now in which I feel that I sound like myself."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Ah, the family getaway. All of you together in one space, maybe a cabin in the mountains or a beach house, a time of togetherness and familial harmony. That is not the kind of family vacation that writer Mark Haddon draws inspiration from.

In his latest novel, "The Red House," Haddon peers inside the messy dynamics of a group of relatives, each grappling with their own fears and trying to make sense of themselves as a family. In the book, Richard, who is a doctor, reaches out to his estranged sister. Her name is Angela. He treats her family to a vacation in a country house on the border of Wales.

Both siblings arrive with their spouses and children. Some of them are teenagers, just beginning to understand their own impending adulthood. They all spend a week trapped together in the vacation house and the scene is set for a series of painful confrontations.

MARK HADDON: I think a holiday home is a milder version of the burning building scenario. We tend to say in a deciding knee-jerk way that holidays are relaxing. But one of the things that does happens on holidays is all our frameworks are taken away. We're sort of - we're left not just with the other members of our family, but we're in our own company for an extended period of time.

So there's the pressure of the house and there's the absence of work, and I think in those situations we tend to find out more, and sometimes a little bit too much about ourselves and those who are close to us.

MARTIN: You're investigating the kind of the internal struggle of each of these people, but even within a page, you are constructing a bigger identity as family unit.

HADDON: Yes. (Unintelligible) by the ninth character as well. It's not that I'm just trying to get a sense of the family, but I'm trying to get a sense of the house as well. And this particular house in the Alcon Valley on the Welsh border where they're staying for this week, and I like to walk around that house in my mind and know every single detail about it.

Funny enough, we were on holiday very recently near Hail My(ph), which is where the fictitious location of the house is. And I drove into the Alcon Valley to try and get a photograph of the place where the house isn't, as it were. But the weather out there is absolutely appalling and the fog was so thick that I stood at this gate and all I could see was a sheer wall of white.

So I rather like the idea that the place that the house isn't was trying to hide from me.

MARTIN: I mean, you do have these lovely descriptions of the house itself and these intricate details and also of the weather that is also a kind of character in this book. How do those details, though, help you construct the narrative? Is there a utility there beyond just the poetry of the description?

HADDON: I don't quite know how it happened. There are certain places in the book where everyone else is asleep, or they're all off somewhere else, and the language seems to sort of - the narrative voice seems to sort of drift off up through the roof and into space, and backwards and forwards in time. Because, I guess, maybe there are not nine characters in the book. Maybe there are 10. Maybe the 10th character is the English language.

And to go back to "Curious Incident...

MARTIN: This is your previous book, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

HADDON: Yes, which has spread along the globe like a benign version of swine flu a few years ago. The one thing that wasn't in that book, I mean, I have to admit now that it probably was a successful book. But there was something that wasn't in there, which was any poetry whatsoever. And I always felt that I'd invented a voice that worked in and of itself.

But there were large bits of my voice that simply weren't in there. I wanted to sound like myself at long last. And I don't think I've written a book until now in which I feel that I sound like myself.

MARTIN: In that book, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," you tell the story of a young boy who is autistic and you're able to capture this young man and his struggles. You do that again in this tale with Daisy. This is a teenage girl. She has found Christianity. She's also discovered that she is drawn romantically to girls. And you describe quite convincingly what becomes an internal struggle for her. How do you inhabit the voice of a teenage girl struggling with something like this as a...

(LAUGHTER)

HADDON: It's just my inner religious teenage quasi-lesbian, isn't it?

MARTIN: We didn't want to say, but since you brought it up...

HADDON: Well, it is hard (unintelligible) isn't it, because there's Melissa from the other family who is 16. When I was writing those two characters, I know no teenage girls. There are no teenage girls in my life so I had to, as it were, build them completely from the ground up, just with little details and just kind of putting myself in the position that those girls would find themselves in.

They felt real because I'd had to make them real for myself. I think if you write characters you know too well, you often forget to make the effort to make real for other people. I think I put a lot of effort into those two characters. And the strange thing was, by the end of the book, I felt I inhabited them more than any of the other characters.

MARTIN: We mentioned all the themes in this novel; sexual identity, parental insecurity, sibling rivalry. Are there any characters in this family portrait who come to some kind of resolution? Is there someone who comes out stronger as a result of this time in this house with this family?

HADDON: Everyone changes, everyone comes away different, to a greater or lesser extent at the end of the book. One of the reasons I set it over seven very specific days in a specific isolated location was that I wanted it to be complete naturalistic. I think my - the reaction I'd love more than anything else from readers is for readers to go away and say: my goodness, that is exactly what life is like.

But if you're going to be a naturalist, you can't be melodramatic. You can't tie things up at the end. You can't have a real sense of closure, because we never do get closure. But the advantage of having it over the period of a holiday is you just snip off the story on that last day. The house stays, they get into their cars, they go away. And, you know, the cleaning lady comes along and gets the house ready for the next people.

MARTIN: Author Mark Haddon, his new book is called "The Red House," and he joined us from the studios of the BBC in Oxford. Mr. Haddon, thanks so much for talking with us.

HADDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.