Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Just your run-of-the-mill family dysfunction

We had a special treat at my library early this summer: Two publisher reps came and talked about the books they were most excited about for the rest of the year.  They also provided some ARCs and other goodies (including signed copies of Daniel Wilson's [local boy] latest novel) and generally added to my metaphorically towering list of things to read. As is my wont, I reviewed the list's audio potential (several goodies -- including Gone Girl for which I am now 81st in the queue). I got overly excited when I saw who was narrating Mark Haddon's latest book, The Red House. Satisfyingly, this one was just waiting on the shelf.

I've only read Haddon's books for younger readers (see here), so I was looking forward to listening (in addition to my narrator crush). I'm not sure it was the best candidate for audio, but I enjoyed it.  Richard and Angela are estranged siblings who meet up -- uncomfortably -- at their mother's funeral. Richard is on his second wife (who appears to be "something slightly footballer's wife" and has a sullen teenage daughter) and is a successful doctor. Angela's family is struggling a bit -- her deadbeat (and philandering) husband Dominic is unethusiastically employed (I might be forgetting and he is unemployed) and Angela works as a teacher. They've got three kids. Richard, in a moment of magnaminity, invites Angela and her family to join his for a week's holiday at a rented house in Wales. She doesn't really want to, but figures this will be her family's only chance at a nice vacation. The reader is primed for disaster.  

But the drama here is more of a domestic variety. Everyone's emotions are pretty internalized and we spend a lot of time inside each character's heads as they review their own petty problems (from infidelity to malpractice to a stillborn baby to several teenage flirtations) and comment on the pettiness of the other character's perceived problems. Everyone has a secret and some are revealed. There is bad behavior from several family members, but also occasional moments of deep empathy. After a week, the families part and small repairs in the tears of their relationships have begun, but there's no shouting (well, there was a little shouting), no earthshattering revelations. I believed they would meet again. It felt very Chekhovian to me.  Life goes on.

I liked the characters, though (with the possible exception of that slimeball Dominic). The four children (three teenagers all very close in age and much younger brother Benjy) were very engaging and original. While the drama that played out amongst the teens was unsurprising (two girls, one boy), they acted in unexpected ways. The adults were a little more trying (those tiresome adult problems), but they surprised me too.

The writing is quite splendid as well. The book begins with the two families traveling -- Richard by car, Angela by train. We are treated to a spot-on description of a train journey ("Seventy miles an hour, the train unzips the fields." "...that train smell, burning dust, hot brakes, the dull reek of the toilet.") as well as neat little slices that introduce each family member (describing what each child is reading). The Welsh countryside and the weather are vividly clear from Haddon's writing.

The novel follows a chronological course of the week the families spend together in the red house, but it flits from perspective to perspective. There are visual clues (extra space) in the book when we are entering the mind of a new character, but it was actually very difficult to follow in the audiobook.  It might be two or three sentences before we hear in whose head we are. Some of the passages are quite brief before we move on. There are also short quotations occasionally popped into the text that I think are from made-up books (but maybe not) that might illuminate what is to come. These were a tad distracting as well, until I figured out what they were.

The question is, does Maxwell Caulfield overcome these flaws?  I really like listening to this man's voice (I've said that before, twice), and there aren't very many opportunities. It's husky and honeyed at the same time. He narrates the novel with a calm and command that reflects the quiet nature of the story, reading clearly and with a pacing that keeps things moving. What he doesn't do is voice this audiobook, create vocal portrayals for the novel's eight characters. The girls and women might speak in a slightly higher register, Benny is clearly childlike (but so is his dialogue), but there's very little distinction between everyone. Since the novel is in the third person, does it make sense to change the "narrator's" voice when we are changing from one character's perspective to another?  Very tricky, I think. It might start to sound like a three-ring circus. So, I think he made the right choice as a reader, but it undoubtedly would have worked better if there had been eight narrators (okay, yes, that costs a lot of money).

My favorite Haddon book (I've listened to all I've read of his) remains The Curious Incident .... Things were so crazy last month that I missed my chance to see the stage version produced by NT Live. I am hoping for an "encore."

[Richard's misadventures on a fog-shrouded mountain in Wales is a turning point in The Red House.  This photograph is of Hay Bluff. It was taken by ceridwen and was retrieved from the geograph.org.uk website.]

The Red House by Mark Haddon
Narrated by Maxwell Caulfield
Books on Tape, 2012.  9:30

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