Jonathan Cape £16.99

The Red House, By Mark Haddon

The quality of the writing allows us to know this extended clan, who are on a week's holiday, better than they know each other

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 Abacus

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project