On numerous occasions I have been tempted to pick up Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as it seemed like the kind of book I would enjoy. Short, with a unique perspective and story line. Plus it seemed to be garnering a certain amount of buzz and that often stokes my curiosity. My wife, however, kept preventing me from buying by insisting that a friend had it and could easily loan it to us. Since I always do what my wife tells me (wink, wink, nod, nod), I put off purchasing it.
Well, low and behold my friend did lend it to me and I recently read it. I must admit that I read it practically in one sitting. I can see what all the buzz was about, it really is an imaginative and powerful work.
In case you haven’t been paying attention or forgot what the book is about, the narrator is a teenager with autism. Christopher John Francis Boone is a fifteen year old Rain Man (to use a crude cultural reference); an autistic savant if you will. He is remarkably skilled and knowledgeable at math and science (he can tell you all the prime numbers up to 7,057) but incapable of grasping the finer points of human emotions.
The title refers to the neighbor’s dog, Wellington, who turns up dead. Christopher has assigned himself the task of solving this mystery. He also decides to make this the subject of his school writing project writing it as a murder mystery. He likes these type of stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sherlock Holmes for example, because they are really just puzzles to be solved; they aren’t filled with confusing sentences and emotions like “proper novels.”
So Christopher takes us along as he tries to find out who killed Wellington. Unfortunately for Christopher this involves uncovering information and emotions that will turn his life upside down. Given his condition this is particularly unsettling.
It is hard to describe a work like this without resorting to cliches: “I laughed, I cried,” etc. But in many ways this was my reaction. It was bitingly funny at times but also touching and sad at the same time. Haddon shows remarkable skill in communicating Christopher’s unique perspective without dehumanizing him or turning the reader off. We don’t see Christopher as an annoying freak but as a person with serious flaws but also real courage and insight as well. The humour isn’t simply at Christopher’s expense. Rather it is funny because it is real; we can relate to the emotions and experiences involved – it is life even if exaggerated. The poignancy is similarly relevant. Even if we haven’t experienced autism up close we still know what it is like to love someone even as we are exasperated by their actions; we know how complicated relationships can be.
Christopher’s perspective also gives the story a certain sharpness; a clarity devoid of sentimentality. The story has an amazing richness despite its minimalist nature. In fact, it is hard to pin the book down despite being only a couple of hundred pages long. As Nani Power noted in her Washington Post review:
Although the book is character-driven, it also contains a rich plot. It is a murder mystery, a road atlas, a postmodern canvas of modern sensory overload, a coming-of-age journal and lastly a really affecting look at the grainy inconsistency of parental and romantic love and its failures. It is a cross-generational novel, very neatly walking the line between adult literary fiction and young adult.
Just because I book is popular with the masses doesn’t mean it can’t live up to the hype. So if, like me, you have been thinking about reading this book but have yet to get around to it I would recommend you bump it up the TBR pile list. I found The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to be an enjoyable, insightful, and even moving work.