Sunday, October 7, 2007

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Highly recommended.

"It was 7 minutes after midnight." Every detail matters in the solution of the mystery of the neighbor's murdered dog, which is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. That's partly because the detective on the case is Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy with autism, a penchant for numbers, a genius for math, and a determination to solve the mystery and write a book.

Clues abound, but Christopher's strictly literal view of the world prevents him from seeing or understanding them, even as he records them. In his mind, metaphors are "lies," and phrases like "raining cats and dogs" and "you'll catch your death from cold" are incomprehensible nonsense. As the story behind Wellington's death unfolds, Haddon masterfully gives the reader the clues that escape Christopher while allowing him to pursue the more logical details he does understand and to get help with the more subtle ones.

Along the way, Christopher offers insight into the autistic mind and people's reaction to it. While he cannot read emotions or pick up on verbal cues and body language (unless they are explained to him; for example, he knows that a raised voice may indicate anger), his mind processes details the average person would miss. While we might see cows and some flowers in a field, he knows how many cows, he can draw each of their individual patterns, and he can name the species of flowers.

Just as Christopher doesn't understand why everyone won't or can't notice these important details, the people he encounters, while quickly picking up that he is different, can't figure out how and adjust themselves. His working-class father tries to, but his understanding of his son seems limited to an intellectual rather than an emotional one. He knows that Christopher hates to be touched and is wise enough to develop a hand signal that signifies love in lieu of a hug, but he doesn't understand at an emotional level the pain that touch causes his son. Not surprisingly, he can become frustrated when Christopher can't behave in the normal way. If Christopher's perception is limited by autism, his father's is limited to what he knows and can see. He cannot feel what it's like to be Christopher any more than Christopher can figure out that his father's quiet, slow speech indicated tightly controlled anger.

As Christopher works on the mystery and his book, he learns how to do things he may not have thought possible; for example, he survives the ordeal of going to a crowded train station and traveling alone. More significantly, he learns how to twist and withhold the truth when necessary. When his father makes him promise not to do something, Christopher rationally determines what he can and cannot do within the very literal sense of the promise, thereby breaking it in spirit. As he pursues his investigation, he seems to grasp that he is on questionable ground according to his own standards, even as he senses that the mystery is important enough to justify his rationalizations. By the end, he can say with pride and with some truth, "I can do anything."

Haddon uses a simple technique to convey the linear, mathematical nature of Christopher's mind and thought process; as the story builds, Christopher begins many if not most of his sentences with "and." "And I bent down . . . And I walked after him . . . And someone said . . . And I said . . . And the man . . . And then I heard . . ." The use of "and" not only sounds genuine, but it is also additive—that is, mathematical. For someone who squares numbers in his head to stay calm, "and" is one way to manage the sensory and emotional overload he encounters in his quest to determine the killer.

Only someone who is autistic can say whether Haddon has captured the thought process and emotions accurately. Even if The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is not a complete insight into the autistic mind, it is a valuable one, and a reminder that not everyone sees the world we see in exactly the same way we do.

Sunday, 7 October 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

2 comments:

  1. I have Asperger Syndrome so a friend recommended this book, and Haddon is spot-on. I just finished this book the other day, and his capture of the constant inner monologue is quite brilliant. My guess is that Haddon himself is AS.

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  2. The book cover says that he used to teach autistic children, I guess as a hint as to where he gets his insights. Perhaps it's a bit of both . . .

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