Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Family Affair

The season for gathering with kith and kin is nearly upon us--for good or ill--and I can't think of a better time to dip into The Red House, Mark Haddon's piquant account of an extended family’s misbegotten attempt to spend quality time together.

This tale, full of sound and fury, is told sequentially by the various family members exiled together in Dysfunction Junction. Richard is a well-to do surgeon; he has invited his more or less estranged sister, Angela, her unemployed husband and their three kids (a teenage boy with raging hormones, a teenage daughter who has inexplicably joined a fundamentalist sect, and a little boy with little boy issues) to join him, his new wife and her sulky, mean-girl teenager for a week straight from hell in a rented house in the English countryside.

This family doesn’t travel light--they bring along plenty of baggage filled with quirky habits, guilty secrets, 
unresolved grief, and free-floating suspicions. Throw in a dash of long-nursed resentment and some emerging sexuality and you have a pot of relationship stew ready to boil over. But interestingly, Haddon’s characters risk being scalded. They attempt to connect in spite of themselves, the primal need to be one with the clan overriding the more logical urge to resist the ties that bind. Their hesitant overtures meet with limited success, but the spirit is surprisingly willing--after all, if your family won’t have you, who will?

Haddon’s talent for mixing humor and pathos will delight lovers of character-driven fiction, and fans of his best-selling The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will recognize his capacity for viewing the world from each character’s individual perspective. He makes us care about them, even though we're glad they won't be sitting around our Thanksgiving table.


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