The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon was published in 2003, and since then has sold more than two million copies making it the third best-selling book of the last decade in Britain, sandwiched, somewhat uncomfortably you would think, between four Dan Brown novels. It has been much awarded, winning the Whitbread Book of the Year in its year of publication, and the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.
It has been on my shelf since 2003, it’s inventive cover, and idiosyncratic title begging me to read it … and yet I have only just managed to read it. No fault of the book itself I assure you – more my inability to stop buying books while a veritable mountain of books build up on my shelves mocking the finiteness of the time I have to read them.
But read it I have finally and what a delight it has been.
It tells the story of Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15 year old boy who describes himself as having “behavioural difficulties”, which may or may not be Asperberger’s or some other form of autism. It is never explicitly stated and frankly it really doesn’t need to be. It is enough to know that Christopher doesn’t see the world, or react to it, like anyone around him and that colours everything that happens to him in the book.
He is a perennial outsider, always detached from the events swirling around him (even though he is intimately involved in them), always at emotional arm’s length from his family, and teachers. He doesn’t really have any friends to speak of, save for Toby his rat and he inhabits an insular sealed world where order is paramount, chaos is recoiled from with horror (and screaming), and colours carry a potent symbolism (for instance if he sees 5 red cars in a row from his school bus in the morning he will have a good day).
What would be an instinctive reaction by any one of us does not come naturally to Christopher. Anyone he doesn’t know well is a “stranger” – this includes neighbours he has known all his life in passing (such as kindly Mrs Alexander) – and even if they prove themselves to be worthy, upstanding members of the community, with only the best intentions, he never warms to them, preferring to stay in contact only with those people who has proved themselves over and over such as his para-professional at school, Siobhan, who is trusted as a guide to the complexities of a world that Christopher is a part of but doesn’t fully understand.
He is a remote character in many ways, aware his father loves him – who tells him his mother is dead although the truth, as is so often the case, isn’t quite that simple – but unable to reciprocate in kind, even though Siobhan has schooled in the appropriate ways to react. He is a boy removed and not the kind of protagonist you would think you would warm to.
But warm to him you do as he recounts finding his neighbour, Mrs Shear’s dog Wellington dead in the garden with a pitch fork through him, and his subsequent efforts to find out who committed this crime. He is fond of quoting Sherlock Holmes, and decides writing a book and keeping track of his endeavours in the best way to follow in the esteemed detective’s footsteps.
What impressed me the most about this book, which is told in the first person by Christopher in his matter-of-fact way, uncoloured by any prejudices or emotions (but chock full of his black-is-black and white-is-white opinions), is that Mark Haddon manages to get you engaged with Christopher and his unexpectedly tumultuous journey of self-discovery in ways that would be foreign to the boy himself.
I think it has much to do with the way Christopher simply tells it like it is. He doesn’t attempt to dissemble the truth; if it happened then it happened, and that’s that and there is something refreshing about his candour. In a world where we tell lie upon lie each day – mostly innocent white lies of no real account – his inability to lie, or fabricate the truth, or represent something as anything other than what it is draws you to him in profound ways.
You really care about this boy, his hatred of foods touching on the plate, his predilection for mathematical problems, his willingness to tackle things head-on, and his inability to understand why this might upset some people. I grew to love his openness and honesty, which while not intentional (being honest is as natural as breathing to him so he would never see as anything other than natural; that’s of course he ever thought about it at all which is unlikely), allowed so many issues to be discussed.
Specifically what happened between his mum and dad before she left his life. Christopher’s reactions to the things he discovers about his family, quite by accident but triggered by his detective work,are gut-wrenchingly emotional. He doesn’t sugarcoat what he is feeling, and this exposes a pain so raw and palpable – in himself and those around him – that you almost feel it.
And it’s that searing honesty of experience that makes this book work. It surprised me that someone so lacking in self-awareness could be so intimately aware of what’s important. While reacting instinctively got him into trouble on occasion – such as when he is taken into police custody after discovering the titular dog dead with a rake through him – it also means anyone dealing with him gets the unvarnished truth, whether they like it or not.
There is a lyricism to Christopher’s otherwise bare-boned utterances, a cadence of honesty that pushes you along through a story where honesty from most people is in very short supply.
And that is this book’s chief joy. In a world where honesty is in critically short supply, and anyone who is unabashedly honest is viewed as some sort of oddity, Christopher is the real deal, his raw pronouncements a soothing balm for a soul pockmarked by one too many hurtful lies (though many initially see it as a hurtful irritant).
He is also the one best placed to reveal the fissures of dishonesty that run deep through our families, our society and our own unexamined lives. It’s an uncomfortable revelation and most people in the book don’t enjoy being exposed in that spotlight, but it’s one that’s needed and ultimately brings a resolution of sorts, however imperfect.
You finish the book convinced that it is Christopher, and not the flawed world around him, who has the better end of the deal. He may occasionally be disadvantaged by not being able to read emotions, or people’s obscure facial or linguistic references, but ultimately he is true to himself and others, and in his wake flows an honesty that, to this reader at least, was an authentic, much needed breath of fresh air.