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curiouser and curiouser: the curious incident of the dog in the night-time - mark haddon

(book review)

Like the fashion world, books follow certain trends. A few years ago, it was motivation – the Chicken Soup series, feel-good-act-better stories that left the reader with a ‘warm, fuzzy feeling’ until they realised that real-life wasn’t as positive as the books painted it to be.

Then came the obsession with mental disorders. Suddenly, they were everywhere: protagonists stumbling through behavioural problems in worlds that were decidedly different from the one that most of us live in.

If it had to be traced back, then Mark Haddon might be a suitable candidate for blame. While not the pioneer of this trend, Haddon’s novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ could arguably be called the most successful of the lot, being branded with the magical word ‘bestseller’ and picking up a Whitbread Book of the Year award on the way.

And curious it is, indeed. Haddon’s narrator, Christopher Boone, is a fifteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic-spectrum disorder. He likes prime numbers, hates being touched and judges what kind of day it will be by the colours of cars he sees. He finds it easy to understand maths and physics, but much more difficult to understand emotions. He finds interaction difficult and prefers solitude and his numbers over anything else. He is easily overwhelmed by everything around him, classifying objects, colours and even people into good or bad based on his own brand of logic.

The novel starts off with Christopher discovering that his neighbour’s dog, Wellington, is dead. Stabbed with a pitchfork, to be exact. The only person on the scene, Christopher is blamed for the murder. Even though he is found to be innocent of the crime, he is fascinated with it and decides to solve it, just as he would solve one of the puzzles he is inordinately fond of. He is also encouraged to write about the experience by his teacher, Siobhan, and the book is supposed to be the result of his efforts.

However, just as Christopher is no ordinary boy, this mystery turns out to be no ordinary mystery. As he tries to find out who might have killed Wellington, he discovers that there is a lot more to his life than he had previously thought. His father’s insistence that he stop looking into the matter, strange comments from neighbours and letters from his mother, whom he had previously thought was dead, all hint that the biggest mystery in the novel may have almost nothing to do with Wellington at all.

Haddon’s experience with working with autistic children is reflected in the novel as he tries to portray the world according to Christopher. Each little quirk is a symptom, a reminder that things are not really ‘normal’ in his world… not normal for the average reader, that is. But it becomes frustrating at times because his observations seem to be obscured by all the reasons why he behaves in a certain manner or does a particular thing. Instead of empathising with him, one is more likely to pity him. We root for him, want him to succeed, but we don’t really understand what is happening at times.

And that is where the main problem with the novel lies: Haddon is giving us an account of what he thinks it is like to have Asperger’s Syndrome. Christopher’s behaviour is clinical, almost textbook-defined. While this does make for an interesting character, the nuances that would transform him into something more human are missing. It is as if the syndrome itself overrules the character.

It could be argued that this is because of its very nature: Christopher is unable to understand certain emotions, but that does not mean that he is completely dead to emotion itself. Unfortunately, he ends up reduced to a caricature for most of the book. There are moments when he comes alive, such as his extreme reaction to finding out his father has lied to him, or his sudden decision to leave home, but these moments are few and leave us unsatisfied

The ‘normal’ people in the book are also lacking a certain depth. Apart from Ed, Christopher’s father, the adults in the book come and go. While all of them play their roles in the story perfectly, there is a feeling that they are little more than plot devices. However, this can be excused by the fact that Christopher has a very limited amount of interaction with them. Ed, however, is the exception: he shows an amazing amount of patience in dealing with Christopher, but at the same time he is not infallible. We are torn between feeling sympathy for him, and wanting to hit him over the head with something heavy because of his behaviour and of all he has hidden from Christopher.

What the book does very well is explain the difficulties someone with a disorder such as Asperger’s would face. Christopher’s journey to London is what stands out from the entire novel, since it explains the difficulties in something that most of us would take for granted i.e. using public transport to get where we wanted to go. It is an overwhelming event for him, and yet, he makes it. Perhaps, then, that is the more appealing metaphor – rather than the mystery that unfolds, it is the journey to London that he undertakes that really hits home. At the end of it all, he is tired, disoriented, but he has reached out and demonstrated that he can do what any normal person can do if he wants to, in one of the novel’s few poignant moments. He manages to pull through just fine, proving that at least his particular disorder isn’t too much of a barrier to overcome and leaving us smiling because we knew he had to triumph all along.

Perhaps those feel-good books were actually on to something, even if the mushy sentiments were slightly too much to take.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013