The situation described here is artificial, but no more so than any other trip to a new locale with extended family. Six weeks after the death of their mother, Richard invites his estranged sister, Angela, to spend a week with him at a rental house in Hay-on-Wye on the border of Wales. He’s a busy, well-off doctor; she’s a harried schoolteacher. It’ll be fun: a chance to smooth out “all that hardwired sibling friction.” But they won’t be alone. Richard has recently remarried and acquired a mean-spirited teenage stepdaughter in the bargain. And Angela is bringing her husband and three children.
There’s something of a lifeboat drama about this setup: eight wary strangers thrown together with a dangerously limited supply of affection. None of these innocent vacationers seems particularly troublesome or unusual, but before their voyage is over, alliances will be drawn and redrawn, secrets revealed, conflicts brought flaming to light. This is a story full of intimate confessions that at first relieve and then frighten.
What holds our interest is Haddon’s extraordinary sympathy, his ability to reveal what stirs these people beneath their congenial holiday faces. Each of them has put a life on hold for this pleasant vacation, but even without good cellphone reception or Internet access, you know how impossible it is to sever the tendrils of home. Richard is dogged by a malpractice case that could ruin his career. His spiteful stepdaughter may have driven a classmate to suicide with a sexting prank. Angela is haunted by a stillborn baby no one else in the family even remembers anymore, and her husband is determined to break off an affair with a troubled woman in his office.
While those dramas play out in their minds, the action takes place among these family members trying their best to get along in the rental house. How do good people overcome decades of bitterness that have calcified into formal friendliness? “I have difficulty believing that Richard and I are actually related,” Angela tells her husband. It’s such a brilliant portrayal of the asymmetric nature of resentment within families — a crash course in sibling dynamics, when even apologizing can spark a new battle. Angela wants to unpack all the old claims stored up while their parents were dying, but Richard, conveniently, just wants to play the gracious host. “It was like contaminated earth,” he thinks, “if you didn’t dig there was no problem. . . . He didn’t want to settle scores. He simply wanted things to be neatly folded and put to sleep.” But, of course, that magnanimous position is no solace to the sibling who’s been nursing her wounds all these years.
The children provide an even more unpredictable series of encounters during this week in the country. Haddon, who will turn 50 in September, knows exactly what it’s like to be a teen teetering on the edge of adulthood, aghast at one’s capacity to do real harm. Richard’s stepdaughter could so easily slip into a mean-girl cliche, but she suffers as much for her cruelty as anyone else. Angela’s 16-year-old daughter, meanwhile, is struggling to figure out whether her newfound Christian faith is genuine or just the self-righteous pose her mother thinks it is. (Could any revelation be worse than discovering your mother is right?) And you won’t make it through these pages without falling in love with the youngest child, 8-year-old Benjy, who frets about reincarnation and death and superpowers and poo.
But it’s Haddon’s peculiar structure that raises this family drama to something exceptional. He’s perfected a constantly shifting perspective that keeps our sympathies from taking root in any one of these characters. The novel is composed of very short segments — sometimes only a paragraph long — each of which captures what a different person is experiencing at that moment somewhere in the house.
I was tempted at first to regard this method as a stunt, a step beyond the brief craze for plural first-person narrators that we saw last year, and honestly, it’s a bit of work, particularly before you’ve got all eight people clearly in mind. But the voices are so distinct that once you can keep up, the effect is symphonic. Moving from sister to brother, to daughter to son, to adult to child; hearing their thoughts and reactions, secret fears and shameful desires, you capture an expansive vision of this family — of the way families work and don’t.
Some of the most ineffable segments take place in the middle of the night, during those dark hours that would fall between the chapters in most novels. We see characters getting into bed or dreaming or tiptoeing to the kitchen for a snack. It’s all in prose, but the effect is something like Walt Whitman’s “The Sleepers,” a poetic reminder of life thrumming along even when everything appears still.
Haddon wends a careful path in this novel between the effervescent comedy of quirky families and the bitter tragedy of dysfunctional ones. Their week in Hay-on-Wye doesn’t make Richard and Angela best buds, but it doesn’t dissolve into acrimony either. Everyone leaves a little chastened, a little more understanding, a little relieved to be returning to the routines of home.
On second thought, maybe this is the novel you should pack for vacation.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.