Books : reviews

Mark Haddon.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Jonathan Cape. 2003

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 10 March 2004

I've got such a backlog of reading that I tend only to read books I own. But a friend enthused about this one, and practically forced it on me. I read it, and was riveted. It's a strange tale told from the first person point of view of an autistic teenager, Christopher. He's a "high functioning" autistic, so he's very good at maths and science, but he has many problems, too. When he discovers his neighbour's dog killed, he decides to investigate, being a fan of the logical Sherlock Holmes (if not of his rather less-logical author, Conan Doyle). But it's the solution to the killing that leads him on to his biggest adventure.

I've read some autobiographies of autistics, notably Temple Grandin, as well as some of Oliver Sacks' accounts. So I'm familiar with (and actually rather like) the "flat", emotionless, matter-of-fact style they write in, and Haddon captures it very well. Indeed, I suspect from some of the scenes in this book that he has read these self-same accounts. There are a few wobbles: at one point Christopher carefully explains why he has difficult imagining unreal things, but later he describes how he copes with some difficulties by imagining himself as an astronaut alone in his space capsule. Also, he hates yellow and brown, but has no problem with the golden retriever. However, these are minor niggles, completely overshadowed by the marvelous descriptions of how and why everyday tasks are such a challenge to Christopher. Haddon shows us a very different-looking world through Christopher's eyes. We come to see how Christopher's peculiar actions make perfect sense, and to sympathise with him, but simultaneously to realise he would be incredibly difficult to live with, and sympathise with his poor parents, too.

I had a curious experience after finishing this book. The next book I picked up was a non-fiction: an account of the history of the Hilbert Problems. In some sense, it's written in very much the same style, but of course for a completely different reason. Since I enjoy non-fiction, maybe I now know why I like this book so much, too. It's certainly not for the same reason all the jacket-blurb quotes give: they say it is very funny. I didn't find it funny at all: moving, insightful, fascinating, educational, gripping, different, yes, but funny, no.