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Ah, the family getaway. All of you together in one space — maybe a cabin in the mountains or a beach house. Delightful family meals, maybe some Scrabble. A time of togetherness and familial harmony.
That is decidedly not the kind of family vacation writer Mark Haddon draws inspiration from. In his latest novel, The Red House, Haddon peers inside the messy dynamics of a group of relatives, each grappling with their own fears and trying to make sense of themselves as a family, all while stuck in a vacation house in the remote English countryside.
"I think a holiday home is a milder version of the burning building scenario," Haddon tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "All our frameworks are taken away ... we're in our own company for an extended period of time. So there's the pressure of the house and there's the absence of work, and I think in those situations, we tend to find out more, and sometimes a little bit too much about ourselves and those who are close to us."
The Red House braids together themes of sexual identity, parental insecurity and sibling rivalry, and no one gets away unscathed. "Everyone changes, everyone comes away different to a greater or lesser extent at the end of the book," Haddon says, and not everyone gets a neat resolution.
"If you're going to be a naturalist, you can't be melodramatic. You can't tie things up at the end. You can't have a real sense of closure, because we never do get closure," he says. "But the advantage of having it over the period of a holiday is you just snip off the story on that last day. The house stays, they get into their cars, they go away."
The house itself is as much a part of the story as Haddon's characters.
"I can walk round that house in my mind and know every single detail about it," he says. In fact, he recently vacationed with his own family in a town near where the house would stand, were it real. "And I drove ... to try and get a picture of the place where the house isn't, as it were," Haddon laughs. "But the weather round there is absolutely appalling, and the fog was so thick that I stood at this gate and all I could see was a sheer wall of white. So I rather like the idea that the place where the house isn't was trying to hide from me."
Haddon says the English language itself could almost be considered a character in the story. "There are certain places in the book where everyone else is asleep, or they're all off somewhere else, and ... the narrative voice seems to sort of drift off up through the roof and into space, and backward and forward in time," he says.
Haddon contrasts his use of language in The Red House with that in a previous novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. "I have to admit now that it probably was a successful book, but there was something that wasn't in there, which was any poetry whatsoever," he says. "So it was great to be able to get that poetic voice into a book at long last ... I don't think I've written a book until now in which I feel that I sound like myself."