The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I'm not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are. I'm meant to say that they have learning difficulties or that they have special needs. But this is stupid because everyone has learning difficulties because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult and also everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobhan, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache if you borrow them, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs.

This is one of those books I would never have picked up to read on my own. I think the title has something to do with that, or more specifically, the word "Dog". I don't read books about pets. Because the pets almost always dies and if not, they somehow will make me cry. For some weird reason, I assumed this book had something to do with a pet, even though I'd never glanced at the synopsis. But then, Helen recommended this book some time back, when I mentioned how authentic I found the autistic protagonist in The Kitchen Daughter, so eventually I decided to give it a try when I walked into my local Barnes and Noble the other day. Considering that I typically find it impossibly hard to focus on a book at the bookstore, I was already halfway into this book when I was leaving the store with my copy of this book.

Christopher John Francis Boone is a Savant - he knows the names of all the countries in the world and their capitals; he knows every prime number up to 7,057; he can also solve intense mathematical theorems through complicated proofs. And although he loves animals, he has zero understanding of human emotions. Christopher is autistic. Routine, order and predictability are important to him, and he hates being touched. Christopher has the habit of walking out of his home at late nights, and one day when he does that, he finds that his neighbor's dog has been killed by a garden fork. He is initially blamed for the killing, but then he is let go later. Christopher then decides to do some detecting work to track down the real killer, and even notes down his entire experience down in a diary.

I am always cautious when reading books about autistic characters. I feel that we have too many books about this subject and sometimes the autistic character is just a pawn in a mystery or a thriller or a tearjerker. In that context, it's interesting that Mark Haddon's book does feature a mystery that isn't even the main focus of the book. The mystery about who killed the dog is the core theme of Christopher's book but for the readers, it is just a vehicle to get us to understand how Christopher functions and to give us an insight into his relationships with people. Besides, this is no tearjerker. Sure, the circumstances are sad and there were moments when I wanted to strangle his parents but the book in no way manipulated my emotions.

Even as Christopher goes about trying to find out who killed the dog, the reader is focused more on how Christopher carries it out. His mode of investigation is to walk directly to the front porch of each house around his neighbors and ask if they saw anything strange that night. Moreover, being autistic, Christopher takes phrases and sentences literally. He doesn't understand what is meant by "I laughed my socks off" or "He was the apple of her eye". And when he has consciously accepted a phrase to mean something other than its literal meaning, even if it still didn't make sense to him, he would use that phrase in Title case, like "At Large". There are times when I found him contradicting himself, such as when he says that he cannot imagine things that aren't true or haven't yet happened, but then he does exactly that later (say, imagining himself in a scientific expedition).

I was more impressed with Christopher's ability to manage himself on his own. He does a lot of things on his own that I wouldn't have imagined a kid of his emotional intelligence could do. It did feel a little too convenient though, similar to how conveniently the police never seemed to catch the bad guys until the good guy comes to save the world in a cheesy hero flick, but still on the whole I thought it was executed well mainly because of how well Christopher analyzes his situation and plans his action, less like a conniving criminal and more like an intelligent person.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is written entirely in first person from Christopher's perspective. He isn't aware that he has autism but only states it as special needs. He also attends a school for children with special needs. His entire narration lacks any kind of emotion, and it is in there that the reader feels moved. There are a lot of unpleasant treatments that Christopher receives, even within his whole family - stuff that makes you cringe but totally bounces off Christopher because they are just words to him and their emotional context is lost on him. And although the ending felt a bit rushed to me, I thought this book was a fantastic piece of work about an autistic character.

I picked this book at my local B&N for some over-coffee reading and then ended up going home with it.

18 comments:

Giving Reading said...

You know I just got this book and  I am so glad it is so good. You are right, I wouldn't have picked it up if not for so many great reviews on the blogs.

Harvee44 said...

I remember enjoying this book tremendously when I read it a few years ago!

zibilee said...

I read this a long time ago, and remember loving it. Haddon does a great job with all the aspects of his story, and you are right about how the curious lack of emotion in the writing stimulates emotion in the reader. This was a very excellent review and I am glad that you loved this one so much. I think I still have my copy on the keeper shelf!

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I read A Spot of Bother by the same author and wasn't crazy about it.  It sounds like this book is much better.  I'll have to give it a go.

Meg @ write meg! said...

I picked this one up years ago but had a hard time getting into it. But I was a different reader then -- much different than I am now (isn't it funny how that happens?). I think I'd enjoy it these days!

Beth(bookaholicmom) said...

I would have never picked this book up but after reading your review I just may give it a try. The premise is interesting. Funny, I thought it was about a pet dog too. I guess I just assumed it from reading the title.

David M. Brown said...

I absolutely loved this book.  I thought it was very well written and a very touching tale.  I can strongly recommend The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.  If you haven't encountered it, it's based in the future where autism can be 'cured' but a small minority were too old when the treatment developed.  It's a very moving book as the protagonist receives the opportunity to receive a newly developed 'treatment' and has to decide whether he wants to become a very different person.  Superb book.

David M. Brown said...

Hi Kathy - I've read both and A Curious Incident... is definitely much better in my opinion.  Hope you enjoy it if you go back to it.

Marie said...

I'm looking forward to reading this soonish. My husband read and loved it, and I have a beloved family member with autism so I'm interested in it from that point of view. Sounds like a great book.

Helen Murdoch said...

I loved this book and got at least 35 students to read it this past year. All but one thought it was fantastic! I thought Haddon really captured the main character's voice

Jennifer G. said...

I'm so glad you liked this!  I really enjoyed getting into such a unique character's head.

JoV said...

Glad you like it! What took you so long to read this?! LOL :D Now that you do, I hope it is your favourite book. :)

LenasledgeBlog.com said...

The title does seems odd, but the premise sounds fantastic. I would love to read this book. It is unusual, yet captivating. Great review, you sold me

Samantha 1020 said...

I read this one pre-blogging and really enjoyed it as well!  It is a book that has stuck with me over the years.  Glad to hear that you liked it so much!

Nina Happyendings said...

Oh wow, I kind of also thought it was about a dog. Glad to find out, it's not! I read the summary and laughed. I thought it was so cute and funny. I never read a book before about a boy that is  autistic. It sounds interesting. Too bad about the rushed ending!

christa @ mental foodie said...

This book had been recommended to me too, but like you, this is not something I'd have ever picked up by myself! I know it sounds shallow, but the title just doesn't sounds interesting to me, like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society  lol (though I did end up liking that book). Maybe I should still give this one a try :)

christa http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/

Lisa said...

I enjoyed this one largely because of the unusual point of view. 

Athira / Aths said...

No, that's really not shallow - I think the title speaks volumes. It's also funny because some times you can tell the genre of a book from the title - sometimes if there's a She in the title, it becomes women-lit to me, if there's a Divergent or Awaken or Lost or something, it becomes YA to me, if it has subtitles, it almost always sounds like NF to me, and so on.