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

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time book cover
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) by Mark Haddon is, ostensibly, a murder mystery. Things are not quite that formulaic, however. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone – who has Autism – narrates the story, which is set in motion by the murder of Wellington, a neighbour’s poodle. Christopher stumbles upon the murdered dog and sets about trying, like one of his heroes Sherlock Holmes, to solve the case, reasoning that the murder of a dog is no less a crime than the murder of a human. This may be his starting point, but as Christopher’s investigations take shape, it becomes clear that there are mysteries closer to home for him to uncover than the murder of Wellington. What unfolds is a truly moving story about (a lack of) connection, Christopher’s need to understand the world, and how a child’s illness can affect many around them.

Christopher is entirely dependent on others to shape his own reality, he not being able to trust his own impression of things. At one level this is an interesting insight into how confusing a place the world can be for someone in Christopher’s position, but it also begins to touch on the sense that all reality is a social construct. Indeed, Haddon uses Christopher’s condition to explore bigger themes about the human condition, not only the construction of personal realities but issues of (dis)connection, and the power of language and communication to shape the world and bridge (or widen) the gap between people.

Despite the larger themes, this is a very personal story and the conceit – that one is reading the first-person story of Christopher – provides a remarkably immersive reading experience. His condition affects every aspect of his life and small details are slipped effortlessly into the story, providing the reader with a real understanding of the machinations of the narrator’s mind. Christopher, we learn, does not like metaphors as they are essentially lies (which confuse and trouble him) and so there are no flowery descriptions here, but instead fine details as Christopher catalogues everything around him in an attempt to record and understand it all. His blunt way of approaching the world is completely disarming and one is carried along with his narrative, despite little happening in the plot for significant periods.

While the plot may appear small from the outside, it is much larger for Christopher: it is a quest not just in search of the murderer, or even of personal discovery, but also a quest for truth – an opportunity for Christopher to break many of the shackles that bind him and dispel some of the lies that he has been told to keep him from harm. In this sense, The Curious Incident is a novel about facing reality, in whatever form it takes, and choosing truth over comfort. This is particularly difficult for Christopher who likes routine and wants everything to have an understandable, rational order.

The first part of the novel takes place in a very small space, geographically; Christopher lives a very routine-driven life, and has few experiences outside of his home, school, and the road that he lives on. It is for this reason that his escapades in the second part of the novel – as his investigation carries him further afield – are so significant (and frightening for him). Haddon does an excellent job of first demonstrating Christopher’s comfort in his surroundings by having his child-narrator write about them in great detail, and then his discomfort in unfamiliar surroundings, as Christopher refuses to engage with the new stimuli to a large extent, finding them overwhelming and upsetting. Of course, this leap from comfort to discomfort is something that anyone can identify with, no matter the specifics of the leap. Thus, as the plot thickens and his life is turned upside down, things get particularly tricky for him. To do everything required to reach the truth requires courage and by the novel’s end it is clear that Christopher has learnt something important about himself – that he can do anything:

“And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? And I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”

Christopher’s straight-forward, emotionless style of narration can be incredibly affecting, particularly when he relays information that should be laced with emotion and, in the hands of another narrator, would be handled far less bluntly. In a strange paradox, this absence of emotion somehow makes the statements more poignant for the reader, who is left to feel in Christopher’s place, and creates a real throbbing connection between reader and text as they see beyond Christopher’s (limited) perspective, and recognise the feeling in even the smallest of acts:

“Father was standing in the corridor. He held up his right hand and spread his fingers out in a fan. I held up my left hand and spread my fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other. We do this because sometimes Father wants to give me a hug, but I do not like hugging people, so we do this instead, and it means that he loves me.”

Autism comes in so many forms that it’s hard to say that any particular representation in fiction is a full, or accurate, account. However, in Christopher, Haddon has created a very believable character who offers an insight into the mind of an individual with autism. There are qualms, of course, about the tendency of art to depict those at the high-functioning end of the spectrum, but, particularly in a novel narrated by an autistic character, there are evident advantages to this.

There are small quirks to Christopher’s narration that are pleasing touches – the chapters, for example, being numbered not with consecutively ascending numbers but instead with prime numbers, which Christopher finds far more interesting. ("Prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.") And there are nice details outside of the narration, creating the sense of a novel thoroughly well thought out and executed. The title, for example, is a nod to Conan Doyle, whose books Christopher enjoys a lot, and is a neat pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes-type title, if, in Christopher’s own style, far more explicatory than Doyle’s.

Christopher’s narrative creates a different angle from which to view the world, and one that had not, at the time of The Curious Incident’s publication, been used too often. As such, the book has a freshness that makes it incredibly readable. More than that, however, it is a perfectly plotted and really well written read. Despite being positioned as a young adult book (albeit with plenty of swearing), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a book that can be read and enjoyed by just about anyone – a truly moving, accessible, and smart novel.

I read this for the first time quite a while ago: love it. Charming, smart and heart-felt.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Amazon (US)

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6 comments:

Literate Housewife said...

What an excellent review. You're making me want to reread this book. I love how you pointed out the detail about prime numbers. I must confess that I don't remember that at all. Who wouldn't like prime numbers better?

On a completely surface note, the cover you posted here is so different from any that I've seen. Very interesting that your cover allows for the messiness that American covers do not.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks very much :) I had to re-read it for a book group and wasn't sure I'd enjoy it as much second time round (only because the plot is fairly straight-forward so I thought the 'novelty' of the voice might have worn off) bit I really enjoyed it - if you do re-read it, you'll have to let me know how you get on!

Yeah, it's a lot more chaotic than the US cover isn't it? This was the cover the book had when I first read it: I'm guessing the original British cover.

DoingDewey said...

Christopher's quirks were one of my favorite parts of this story. I loved when he digressed about science and I thought the prime number labeled chapters were fun. I also really liked when the author used Christopher's interests in science or numbers to meditate on life. Although I think I liked this a little less than you did, I have to agree that it was both accessible and smart in a really great way.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Yes, I think Haddon does a really good job of using Christopher's interests to look at the world from a different angle. It is, I think, remarkable how much feeling he can generate from relaying scientific facts. Thanks for stopping by - always happy to have differing opinions (and Library-based avatars) on here :)

Veena Singh said...

Wow! Such a detailed review without revealing anything. Amazing job! I just finished reading the book. Was looking for what other bloggers have to say to this book. :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks, Veena, that's kind of you to say. Let me know if you post about the book - I'd be interested to read your thoughts too. :)