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

When it was first published in 2003, Mark Haddon’s murder mystery The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time received rave reviews, plenty of awards and ended up being adapted for the stage. Despite this, it was a book I was only vaguely aware of. Maybe that was because, other than the occasional Agatha Christie story, I’ve never been much of a one for mystery novels. So I approached it with few expectations one way or the other.

And I loved it. Although the book is ostensibly a mystery, the actual murderer is revealed long before the last chapter. The real focus is the narrator and investigator, Christopher. A teenage boy in an emotionally disassociated condition – presumably Asperger’s Syndrome though never named as such – Christopher sees everything in detail and can comprehend complex mathematical equations and yet is unable to read the feelings of others nor to deal with vagueness or change. As he tells his story, we get to see the world from  a very different viewpoint. It’s a remarkable feat of the writer that we are able not only to empathise with a character who is himself incapable of empathy, but to experience just how frightening and confusing the mundane seems to him. His understanding is both more and less than the average, making him a fascinating narrator. Maybe if Christopher’s role model Sherlock Holmes shared his view of the world, it would be something like this.

There is a huge sense of vulnerability running throughout the book.  Christopher may be a remarkable boy but his family are ordinary people struggling to deal with their own problems and relationships. As much as he would like to control his experiences through timetables and routines, the lives of others keep on intervening. As a reader, I often found myself feeling frightened for him, especially when he sets out on his own. One particular sequence set on the London Underground had me literally holding my breath at one point.

It is to Haddon’s credit that Christopher is not presented solely as an object of pity. By the end of the story, the boy has begun to recognise his inner strength. Even before this, we see the joy that he experiences in mathematics and the comfort that he derives from his strictly rational mind-set. Indeed, some of his insights had me looking at thing from a new perspective and questioning my own assumptions.

The best first person narratives make us feel as though  the narrator is there with us, telling us the story and enabling us to understand experiences different to our own. Arthur Golden achieved it with Memoirs of a Geisha and Mark Haddon achieves it with this novel. Christopher is in many ways the antithesis of me and yet I felt that I had entered his world completely. I also found myself caring deeply about whether his story would end happily. The final chapter is playfully ambiguous on this point but leaves plenty of room for hope.

Outstanding.

Damian

My next book: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich Von Daniken

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