The assignment brief for this task is: Choose one book you have read and liked, and one you have read and disliked. In 100 words, say why you think a particular book you have read works; again, in 100 words, say why you think another book does not.
I have chosen two books I have read recently; The Back Road, by Rachel Abbott, and The Red House by Mark Haddon. They have quite a few things in common. Both are about relationships, featuring middle-class English people (stock novelists’ material). Both stories are narrated from multiple points of view – an omniscient narrator building up tension and interest through several characters.
In The Back Road, the author is juggling at least 11 characters. This is a lot to keep track of, to develop a physical image of, and to care about. I found it difficult to get into because of the lengthy description. The tortuous passage about the preparation for a dinner party was tedious, and I didn’t really believe that a character who was in emotional meltdown would put so much effort into preparting canapes. I could see why it got so many 5-star reviews on Amazon because the narrative mostly rattles along at a good pace. But I was frustrated by the author’s device of building up tension by withholding information from the reader that the characters know. For instance “It was him again. Why did he keep texting?” That sort of thing goes on for chapter after chapter and keeps the reader guessing. Some readers might enjoy the game but I just found it tiresome. The characters were too much alike for me to be able to remember who was who.
In The Red House, Haddon’s prose is spare and economical, but he is masterful with words and brilliant at building character without a lot of description. Here too there is a group of people (seven this time) brought together by an event, but they are all very different and by halfway through the book we are so familiar with the characters that we know whose POV is being used without the author having to name the character. Haddon is brilliant in getting inside the minds of children and teenagers without being condescending or cliched. The situation is completely plausible, and the structure of the book is very satisfying.