What delicious irony that, no sooner do this year's Orange Prize judges turn their backs on the domestic novel in favour of Big Subjects like war, than Mark Haddon chooses to write The Red House. Perhaps the subject of families and houses, long eschewed by male novelists, has been so unfashionable for so long that it seems daringly avant-garde. At any rate, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is taking a risk of a different kind in this conventional tale.
Four adults and four children, all related through ties of blood and marriage yet effectively strangers to each other, rent a house in Herefordshire for just one week. A wealthy Edinburgh doctor, Richard, has invited his sister Angela, her husband Dominic and three children Alex, Daisy and Benjy to stay in an idyllic house near Hay-on-Wye. Richard's second wife Louisa and step-daughter Melissa complete the party. For seven days, we see inside each character's head as they befriend, despise, manipulate, draw out, blame, lie and forgive each other in a place with awful mobile phone reception and worse weather. By the end, as is a tradition of the genre, each has altered, and we have got to know them even better than they know each other.
The formal constraints of time and place invite predictability. Obliged to "do nothing for a week and enjoy it" in the countryside, they naturally do anything but. You can be pretty sure that Dominic, the poor brother who seems so sympathetic at the beginning when rescuing eight-year-old Benjy's all-important toy, will be revealed as a creep – and so he is. You can also be pretty sure that Richard has more to him than professional success and a degree of self-control – and so he does. Richard's pretty second wife, afraid of being looked down upon by his middle-class relations, is going to have a heart of gold as well as a chequered past, just as her teenage daughter Melissa is less of a queen bee than a spiteful, doomed brat whose actions have caused another girl at her school to attempt suicide.
Yet, rather like with Alan Ayckbourn's plays, what makes The Red House engaging is the quality of the writing. From the first page in which the train carrying Dominic and Angela's family "unzips the fields", there is a vigour to Haddon's prose which carries you along, even if the style (historic present, dialogue rendered in italics, shifting viewpoints) is not at first inviting. Richard and Dominic are skewered with an accuracy which makes them feel real: Dominic, we are told, is counted as a friend, "but no one counted him as their best friend". Richard, as Daisy says to him, thinks that just because he's intelligent, he must be right.
If the women are largely indistinguishable from each other when not fretting over their individual tics (in Angela's case, a dead daughter who may or may not be haunting the house in a manner reminiscent of Alice Thomas Ellis's Unexplained Laughter), the children are, of course, delightful. Benjy, with his unbridled imagination, his fears, his uncomplicated love and his enthusiasm for wooden swords from Hay's "House of Trash" was so like the nicest kind of eight-year-old boy that I almost wished the whole novel was about him. Daisy, whose emotional confusion and kind heart has led to an ostentatious conversion to Christianity, seemed equally touching, as she ploughs through Dracula rather than Twilight.
But it is 17-year-old Alex, on the threshold of becoming a young man, who is most intriguing. As a fit young jogger and proto-Tory, he arouses Richard's competitive instincts with almost fatal results; as a teenage boy, he is grist to Melissa's mill; as Dominic's son, he is his mother's avenger, and as Daisy and Benjy's brother, he, like Richard, is obviously going to step into the role of being more responsible than his flaky parents. Alex is one of the best portraits of a teenage boy I've read for some time. His obsessive masturbation gives the novel its moments of hilarity, and he is the most fully realised of all the assembled cast.
All of this is woven into a larger canvas concerning books, the countryside and "the future turning into the past". (Hay-on-Wye's role as a "town of books" gives the excuse for a few caustic comments on contemporary authors, which jar.) Haddon's choice of subject might otherwise seem an oddly conventional one, and he does not give us the profound insights into human nature that this kind of novel needs to make it great; but his interest in the way individuals try to connect unifies it with his two previous novels. It's not for one moment as extraordinary as his debut; but when stuck on holiday for a week myself, I read it twice, both times with enjoyment.
Amanda Craig's most recent novel, Hearts and Minds, is published by AbacusReuse content