"The Red House" (Doubleday), by Mark Haddon
Mark Haddon is best known for 2003's best-selling "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," told from the point of view of an autistic teenager. Unfortunately, his new novel has little of the sweetness and humor of that gem. Instead, Haddon revisits well-trodden material and fails to provide any new insight in "The Red House," which tells the story of an estranged brother and sister who take their families on vacation together shortly after the death of their mother.
Not surprisingly, Angela and Richard, who had spent "no more than an afternoon in each other's company over the last 15 years," and their families are thrown together for a week at a house in the English countryside -- an obvious setup for drama. Big drama. In fact, so many crises get revealed and aired out in this 264-page novel that it starts to feel a bit like a Jerry Springer episode.
The book's other major shortcoming is its characters. With only eight people to keep track of -- two couples and four children, three of whom are teenagers -- it shouldn't be a problem. But none, especially the adults, is particularly clearly drawn, leaving them muddled and difficult to tell apart.
On the upside, Haddon's prose is lovely.
"Time speeds up. A day becomes an hour, becomes a minute, becomes a second. Planes vanish first, cars are smeared into strings of colored smoke then fade to nothing."
Or this: "The witching hour. Deep in the watches of the night, when the old and the weak and the sick let go and the membrane between this world and the other stretches almost to nothing."
And the writing is just about enough to keep readers engaged.