Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime

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Author: Mark Haddon
Paperback: 224 pages (April 1, 2004)
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099450259

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon is a Whitbread Book of the Year winner and its cover is weighted with praise. I was given this novel as a (very) belated Christmas present and on asking why this particular book was told that I would probably enjoy and find fascinating the narrator’s voice. Now, I’m neither a quick reader nor someone who will read “anything” – and I knew nothing of its surrounding media “hype”! I sometimes have a few books on the go and depending on my mood will choose the one whose rhythm and style fits. As soon as I picked up The Curious Incident…I was so taken by it and – indeed – the style and voice of the narrator that I could hardly put it down. This is unusual. Normally I can’t read when other people are around or the television is spewing out its vapid inconsequentialities (okay sometimes it’s a great medium), or there is the odd, arrhythmic and almost disharmonic uttering of a computer game. But I was “in there”. Transfixed I was, very curious indeed and funnily enough definitely in tune with the rhythm of the novel. I say funnily because the narrator – Christopher Boone – suffers from an acute case of Asperger’s Syndrome* whose thoughts are marshalled in short, ordered sentences and who is trying to navigate a very curious and at times hugely frightening world.

Christopher has constantly to make sense of this, our, world. His thoughts are precise and usually logical; though he has aversions to particular colours and will “read” things into certain patterns – i.e. four red cars in a row equals a “good day”. He sees the detail in all things– almost as if he is under the influence of a hallucinatory drug. It is as if everything is a problem – everything is too much – a sensory overload that causes him great pain.

As we read and inhabit his mind, his rhythm of life, we feel something of the intensity, the illogic of our own. He is gifted at mathematics and requires absolute order to function properly. He doesn’t like touching people and cannot tell a lie. Because he doesn’t tell lies he has an innocent charm. Also in order to live reasonably he needs to break down everything into manageable sections of order and logic. There is a real feeling of isolation and an unbearable and very concrete barrier between him and others. And yet we understand why he is the way he is – because the narration unfolds clearly the process of his thought – thus to some extent we inhabit his mind.

He is like a romantic poet without the poetry – and yet there is a kind of poetry in the book; a poet makes you view the world differently or makes the common-place extraordinary – I think Christopher does this. But his poetry is unconscious. We are forced into his world and the clear, innocent logic of it makes our world often seem hysterical and nonsensical. Sometimes it is as if his skin has been removed and he is left raw to his environment. No wonder he doesn’t want to touch. To touch would be unbearable. And because the world “shouts” at him he has to withdraw and find peace in internal complication. Puzzles, timetables, chess etc. gives him some relief. Also we can only wonder at his acute mathematical intelligence. He is gifted – but the price of his gift is heavy.

The Curious Incident is not, I stress not, a depressing book. Far from it. When I read the last sentence I had a smile on my face. The appendix, which carries a mathematical equation (that Christopher had worked out), humbled me. I wouldn’t want to have to pay the price Christopher has for his way of thought but I finished the book thinking about people and their thoughts slightly differently.

How complicated does life have to be? What kind of a world have we – the “sensitive” people (those who think emotionally and who can touch each other) created? And yet if Christopher were to invent a world (in his favourite dream everyone dies except those like him; therefore he never needs to be near people) it would be very ordered and cold. I am uneasy with this statement because as you read the book you tend to feel instinctively that Christopher has a great locked-up chest of emotions. But am I being fanciful? He cares for animals and it is the “murder” of a dog that sets him on a life-changing course. But it is the idea that an ordered, imposed world kills emotion, excess, subtly, nuance, that stays with me. We might live in a crazy world but it is an exciting world. Cruel and frightening too – if you don’t obey its covert rules. And through the novel we see the effect of Christopher’s condition on the adults who care for or surround him.

The novel is driven along by some nice twists (in our expectations) and there is plenty of movement within it. It makes you think about life without being heavy. The title of the book and elements within it (often explicitly) refer to Sherlock Holmes’ detective adventures. Christopher admires Holmes for his cool calculations but despises Conan-Doyle the author for his sentimentality and belief in the supernatural. Christopher is encouraged to write his thoughts and thus the story by a social worker at his school – this gives Haddon the opportunity to throw in a few ideas about the nature of writing and hand over authorship of the Curious Incident to “Christopher” – giving distance and credibility.

One thought I have had since finishing the novel is the seeming absence of puberty on Christopher. I have no idea if this is unduly affected by Asperger’s Syndrome or not but would be intrigued to know. All of us become somewhat “obsessive” during these years and there must, at least, be a potential affect upon a sufferer of autism.

* Asperger’s Syndrome seems to identify a form of autism where the children have a very high IQ

Reviewed by Tim Bragg

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