Note: This is #44 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.
Some books work because they take you to new places you could never go on your own. This has, in my experience, included fantastical realms, outer space, periods of history long past, and Canada. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time adds another place to that list: the mind of an autistic boy.
The story here is told in the first person by 15 year old Christopher Boon, who suffers from autism or, perhaps, the related Asperger syndrome; the novel never directly addresses the question. Christopher is a math wiz and has a phenomenal memory, but his condition leaves him with severe difficulties dealing with things like simultaneous multiple streams of information, new people, and the subtleties of everyday human communication. He also doesn’t like anything yellow or brown, and he is completely incapable of getting emotional responses right or understanding (or caring about) the emotions of other people. Still, you get the sense that he’s a good kid, and his dad loves him.
The book’s plot starts off with Christopher trying to play detective and investigate the death (by pitchfork) of his neighbor’s dog. Thus the title. That mystery quickly falls away as the main character’s investigations accidentally put him on to another, bigger mystery dealing with the fate of his absent mother. Haddon cleverly constructs the book so that chapters alternately deal with Christopher’s autism and his quest to solve these mysteries. One chapter, for example, will have Christopher discussing how he doesn’t understand the concept of jokes or puns because he can’t get his autistic head around the concept of a word meaning more than one thing at once, and then the subsequent chapter will continue on with the main plot until another interlude takes us back to the world of autism.
Both parts are engaging and what unfolds is a fascinating character study and a really enjoyable and emotionally satisfying bildungsroman about Christopher’s mysteries and what their resolution means for him and his family life. I’m no expert on autism, but the novel at least feels to me to be really genuine in that area, and even if it’s not it’s unarguably compelling to see it all described from Christopher’s point of view. I also loved how the affective punch of the story was actually heightened given its narration by someone as emotionally distant, logical, and clear-headed as an autistic boy. I felt for his family even if he was incapable of it, and that created an unusual dramatic tension. It’s really well crafted and a surprisingly good debut for a new novelist. And yes, you do find out who killed the dog.
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Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week: