Some Books: Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’


Curious

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was published in 2005. Haddon had written it as a children’s book, but it was published and marketed simultaneously to both children and adult’s markets. The book was a phenomenon, winning nearly every Award for which it qualified, selling massively, acclaimed on all sides.
At the time, I was married. My mother-in-law, with whom I got on very well, lived on Mallorca, and through her influences we were able to holiday there at very good rates. Whenever we went over, she would ask us to bring some things, mostly certain foods, that she couldn’t get over there. Sometimes these were books. One of them was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I took the opportunity to read before we travelled. I’m not usually very big on books that are a public phenomenon, but this time I thought that everyone got it right.
But that was then. Before Xmas, the book caught my eye on eBay, and I bought it for myself. Does it stand up to the passage of time? Does a tree stand up, straight, tall and proud? Oh yes, it stands up. It is still nothing less than breath-takingly good.
Technically, the story is a murder mystery, but the victim is a dog, staked with a garden fork, and the ‘murderer’ confesses his guilt halfway through the book, but that’s not the point. The point is the voice, the voice of Christopher Boone, a fifteen year old boy with a talent for advanced mathematics, but also with, let’s call it, ‘behavioural difficulties’.
That’s how Haddon preferred to describe it. Most people rushed to the words Autism, and Asberger’s Syndrome, and as someone with a niece who is severely autistic, and a nephew who is mildly Asberger’s that’s where I went, and still go now, frankly. But Haddon wanted to avoid such simplistic tags, so as not to limit Christopher’s thinking, or our response to being inside a head so different from the ones we usually occupy, to one point.
The story itself can be summarised fairly easily. Chris has lived for the last two years with his Dad, Ed, a boiler engineer, in Swindon. His mother died of a heart attack two years ago. When Christopher discovers the dead dog on Mrs Shears’ lawn, opposite, he decides to detect who has done it, and write a book about it. He causes disruption doing so, because of his inability to understand human emotions. Ed orders him to stop, confiscates his book. Searching for it, Chris discovers letters from his mother, weekly ones, from London. Ed admits that she’s not dead, that she went off with Mr Shears opposite and he didn’t tell Chris the truth. He admits killing the dog. This places Chris into great fear of Ed. He decides to go and live with his mother in Willesden. Despite being completely unequipped to do so, on every level, and with the Police looking for him to return him to his father, he gets there. His arrival causes massive upheavals for everyone, but Chris ends up taking his Maths A-level and getting an A-grade. He is confident about his future, because he got to London so he knows he can do anything.
Every little bit of this we see through Chris’s eyes. We see far more than he does, of the world about him: it is as if Chris is looking through a pinhole, seeing only the actions, but we see the meanings and the implications. And it all feels so natural. Without once ever feeling forced or artificial, Haddon places us very quietly inside Chris’s head, leaving us our understandings but restricting us to only what he sees and feels. The things he does, and how impossible it is to deal with him from our seemingly wider perspective, are alien: we don’t understand why Chris acts that way but we do see them as being him within.
From the very start there’s a strangeness to the book. We sink into its atmosphere as if it is a bubble, and see through the curvature of its surface. It’s all slightly unreal, because we don’t think that way, and we keep trying, ineffectually, to force things into our own perspective which, from within here, has ironically become the limited viewpoint.
In short, this is an astonishing book, and an astonishingly good one. I can’t think why I didn’t just buy a copy for myself after we got back from Mallorca that time, and have kept it since, but I will be keeping hold of this book from now.
Incidentally, when reading the book the first time, I didn’t realise until afterwards that I had already been familiar with Haddon’s work. For about a year, in the mid-Nineties, he wrote and drew the weekly satirical cartoon strip, Men – A User’s Guide, for the Guardian’s Women’s Page, copies of several of which I cut out or photocopied, and which I have re-located for the first time in a decade or more – the strip demands to be reprinted, if only for me. Haddon’s ideas then were more directly caustic but also sharply pointed. The two really can’t be compared: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is much more restrained.
But it truly is a work of genius and I am so glad to re-discover it.

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