British writer Mark Haddon was already an accomplished children’s author and artist when his first adult novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a murder-mystery told from the point of view of an autistic boy, made him the toast of the town. Curious was followed, confoundingly for some, with a book of poetry. Next came a novel, A Spot of Bother which, confoundingly for others, had the audacity to be merely good.
Like its predecessor, The Red House focuses on the interpersonal dynamics within a family and as such, has roots in the 19th century domestic novel of manners, something Haddon wryly alludes to when he describes the house where it is set as one “where Eliot or Austen might have lodged a vicar and his fierce teetotal sisters.” Given how much Haddon cranks up the unpleasantness quotient this time around, however, “novel of bad manners” might be a more fitting term.
Haddon gives us not so much a plot as a premise—one he seems eager to dispatch as quickly as possible. It is this: Richard, a wealthy doctor, has invited his schoolteacher sister Angela, her husband Dominic and their three kids: Alex, 17, Daisy, 15, and Benjy, 8, to spend a week with him, his new wife Louisa and 16-year-old step-daughter Melissa, at a holiday house on the Welsh border. Long estranged, Angela and Richard’s recent meeting at their mother’s funeral was their first in 20 years; Angela is thus aware that Richard’s offer represents an olive branch it would be unseemly to refuse.