The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

I love this book. This is the kind of book that makes you not want to do anything else until you’ve finished it, and then when you have finished you are happy and sad at the same time. I started The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time on the bus coming back from the Cambodian coast one afternoon, and finished it the next morning. And did little else in-between, besides showering, unpacking and eating.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is told from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. Christopher has Asperger’s Syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum. Christopher doesn’t like being touched by other people, and finds it difficult to recognise different emotions. He hates certain colours (yellow and brown) and he loves (and is very good at) maths. If he sees red cars on the way to school it is going to be a Good Day, but if he sees yellow cars it is a Black Day. On Black Days he can’t do anything but sit inside and groan. Groaning makes him feel safe, as does being in small spaces away from other people.

The story starts when Christopher discovers a dead dog in a neighbour’s yard. The dog has obviously been murdered – it has a garden fork stuck through its body. Christopher likes mysteries (he is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes) and decides to find out who killed the dog. In doing so he discovers some startling truths about his own family, and is forced to set out on a frightening journey.

One of the most engaging aspects of The Curious Incident is its central character, Christopher. The reader experiences the world the way Christopher does, through his straight-to-the-point descriptions, pictures, graphs, and snippets of philosophy. The way Haddon describes Christopher’s trip to London, for example, is brilliant. The reader becomes completely immersed in Christopher’s mind, and comes to feel as overwhelmed as he does while waiting for a train (an experience that for most of us is usually easy and unremarkable). And though it can sometimes be a little scary to face life from Christopher’s perspective, it is also enlightening. And a great pleasure, for Christopher is intelligent, achingly honest, and often very funny.

Perhaps the best thing about The Curious Incident, however, is the way it deals with Christopher’s difference. Asperger’s Syndrome is never directly mentioned in the book (only on the back cover) and Mark Haddon states on his website that he didn’t want The Curious Incident to be a novel about one specific disorder. He notes that he did very little research on Asperger’s Syndrome (he spent more time investigating the workings of the London underground). The Curious Incident is not about understanding Asperger’s in particular, but about understanding and accepting difference in general. Haddon writes on his blog:

Labels say nothing about a person. They say only how the rest of us categorise that person. Good literature is always about peeling labels off. And treating people with dignity is always about peeling the labels off. A diagnosis may lead to practical help. But genuinely understanding another human being involves talking and listening to them and finding out what makes them an individual, not what makes them part of a group.

The real success of The Curious Incident lies in the way it presents Christopher’s differences in a positive way. Like any great protagonist, Christopher has difficulties – like being unable to recognise how people are feeling – but he is able to overcome them. He also has strengths – like being incredibly good at maths. Christopher is like any heroic character; only his challenges are a little different from those of other teenage boys.

I highly recommend this novel to adults and young adults alike. It is funny, clever, moving, and a compelling mystery. A thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking read from the first page until the last.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was published in 2003. It won the Whitbread Novel of the Year award, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and the South Bank Show Book Award. The book was also long listed for the Man Booker Prize. Mark Haddon has written more than fifteen books for children He is also an illustrator and a screenwriter. Visit his website here.

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