I hope you have read this book because I am not going to tell you the story of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. If you have read it, you will know what I am talking about and I won’t want to bore you. But, if you haven’t, you really don’t know what you are missing. So maybe I will be able to just rouse your curiosity enough too make you want to read this intriguing book. It is far too complex a tale for me to sum up in just a few words. As the back cover says “
“The Curious incident of the dog in the night time” is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour’s dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down”.
This is the only book to have been published simultaneously in both an adult and children’s version, which illustrates the publishers’ belief in its value. To get even one book published is difficult enough these days, but to have it published in tandem is even more phenomenal.
Mark Haddon says that when writing the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time he thought to himself :”Who on earth is going to want to read about a fifteen year old kid with a disability living in Swindon with his father.
And then he thought : “I better make the plot good”
Well, I think that Mark Haddon has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, and through his narrator Christopher Boone, this novel is the work of a genius. To be able to understand the thought processes of an autistic child, or one with Asperger’s Syndrome without having had, as he says, any more experience of it than a brief stint at a home for mentally challenged people, is more than remarkable, although I will return to this aspect later. Forgive me if I use too many superlatives, but I am in awe of the talent of Mark Haddon.
As one interviewee says of this book,
“It is not just the hook, though the hook is peculiar and oddly affecting. The hook, the plot – is significantly better than good, but it’s the irresistible voice of Mark Haddon’s young narrator that elevates this literary debut to fantastic heights. –
The book opens:
“It was seven minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run – I love this description – “running on its side” the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was garden fork sticking out of the dog”.
A few pages later our narrator, a boy with behavourial problems which I might say are never really spelled out in the book, says, “This is a murder mystery novel.”
Our ‘hero’ has an incredible ability to do puzzles, understands maths and seems to have a photographic memory. However human emotions are a minefield of misunderstandings for him and each one that he encounters involves much mental debate. But, besides the emotional roller-coaster that our hero Christopher takes us on, the book has many funny moments as well.
But, to give you some background, of the author Mark Haddon, this is what his official biography says:
Mark Haddon was born in Northampton in 1962. He graduated from Oxford University in 1981, returning later to study for an M.Sc in English Literature at Edinburgh University. He then undertook a variety of jobs, including work with children and adults with mental and physical disabilities. He also worked as an illustrator for magazines and a cartoonist for New Statesmen, The Spectator, Private Eye, the Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian.
His first book for children, “Gilbert’s Gobstopper”, appeared in 1987 and was followed by many other books and picture books for children, many of which he also illustrated. These include the Agent Z series, and the Baby Dinosaurs series. From 1996 he worked on television projects, and created and wrote several episodes for Microsoap, winning two BAFTAs and a Royal Television Society Award for this work.
In 2003 his novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was published and has been highly successful. It has won a string of prestigious awards, including the 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year. He teaches creative writing for the Arvon Foundation and Oxford University. He is married to Sos Eltis, a fellow in English Literature at Brasenose College and they have a son Alfie. His hobbies are marathon canoeing and as he puts it ‘ various other masochistic sports activities.”
I have great empathy for Christopher Boone. It seems that he is surrounded by adults who generally give him the run around. The disappointment he must have felt when he discovered his father had been lying to him about his mother’s sudden absence must have been devastating. For someone who only sees matters in black and white and no shades of grey this must have come as a tremendous blow. In addition there is his fear of talking to strangers that makes it difficult for him to create friendships, ask someone for directions, and do all the things that normal people do. Mrs. Shears whose dog is found dead isn’t of much help, and nor are the police who arrest him because they simply don’t understand him and his reactions to situations. The only person he can really rely on is Siobhan, his therapist/teacher. On Page 19 he starts off by saying “I find people confusing” as the nuances of language and the hidden meanings in metaphor and gestures are totally unknown to him. When the neighbour Mrs. Alexander invites him to tea he loses out on a golden opportunity to make friends because of his lack of social graces. His father’s reaction to all this makes life even more confusing for Christopher. Finding the letters from his mother has his mind in total turmoil and he now has no-one to whom he can turn. However fear of the unknown, unknown places, and moving out of his neighbourhood, facing crowds, drawing money from the atm with his father’s stolen credit card, are all demons that he faces in his own way, resorting to mathematics to keep his mind off the turmoil which threaten to envelope him. The train journey, using a strange toilet and observing how and what to do are all bewildering experiences.
Against all odds he finds his mother now living with Mrs. Shears ex-husband and even now life is not as he expected it would be. Here too he is not safe. Roger Shears is unable to cope with this demanding and confusing youngster. And in between all this mayhem he has to write his A Level mathematics exams, a difficult task under normal circumstances. For passing this exam, he is given a dog called Sandy as a reward. He has discovered the cause of the death of Mrs. Shears dog and is best pleased with himself. The wonderful ending with his plans for the future can only breathe hope into all those who had no faith in him. What a triumph for some one with Asperger’s syndrome.
In the Timesonline review the assertion is made that Haddon has an interest in mental illness because he himself has this affliction. However this is something he strongly denies , “I’m going to keep my dark times to myself and be mysterious: although he does concede that “You can’t create a character unless you have some personal experience to draw on.” He also says “The people who find it easy, run through their schooldays like gazelles across the veldt, and they get mopeds and girls with real breasts. And there are the other people standing nervously on the side of the playground. And all writers are in that latter group.” He goes on to say “I don’t think that you ever become really creative until you’ve been genuinely bored and pissed off with the things in your life. It’s what prompts you to say ‘once upon a time’ and enter this parallel universe, this fantastic faculty that human beings have. I don’t think you’d find any writer who has not suffered some dark times”
Many years ago my son was misdiagnosed with autism at a time when there was very little known about the condition and even fewer experts able to help, so I am well acquainted with the syndrome. Wikipedia defines autism like this:
And Asergers as this
To this day nobody really understands it. However, that said, Mark Haddon certainly has got inside the mind of his character. The setting of the book, and the way the story is related all work so well that one develops an innate empathy for Christopher. Although initially written by Mark for the adult market, it has sold well to children as well, because Christopher is ageless, appealing to young and old alike.
And what Christopher brings is a fictional character who can only tell the truth, because when he tries to tell a lie it all comes out wrong.
I don’t tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies…..
He is unable to understand metaphor (DEFINED BY THE DICTIONARY THUS: the application of a name or descriptive phrase or term to an object or action which is not literally applicable, i.e. leave no stone unturned or food for thought )
“I find people confusing”…..
He sees things as they are, without the innuendos, or punch lines, and there is only black or white, no areas of grey.
Mark Haddon says that one of the things he liked was the layers of irony and paradox all the way through. He ‘tells it like it is’ and leaves you the reader to make of it what you will. It is almost as though Mark Haddon is acting as a tool for the voice of Christopher. Mark sees this book, not as one about disability, but as a way to communicate with people on a different level. He manages with such apparent ease to really get inside the head of his character, and to put you there too, as though there is nothing simpler than that. I think we can all learn a thing or two from Christopher about how to deal with situations that put chaos in our lives.
PAGE 59 & 60
“I used to think that Mother and Father might get divorced….
Many people see this as a sad book, others say it is charming and that it kept them laughing. Mark admits that on second reading it is much funnier than the first time around. It’s the sort of book one needs to read a few times to really get to grips with it. On the first reading, one is too concerned with its unusual layout and the thought processes. It’s a novel, a mystery, a teaching aid, a puzzle. And it is all neatly sewn up in the end with a logical conclusion.
Mark said that it is the plot is what made it good, because it had to grip people from the beginning, exactly what he achieved. Yet, when discussing the book, people invariably speak about the central character of Christopher, and the situation in which he finds himself, not the plot.
Mark worked with youngsters with disabilities some eighteen to twenty years ago, when autism wasn’t a term used very often, and only when writing the book did he realize that the people he worked with had autism, some more seriously than Christopher. Mark’s ability to have such a great understanding of mathematics is another one of the rare qualities that he has been able to incorporate into his book. Chapter headings make no sense at all until you understand that these are prime numbers which are so integral to mathematics.
Yet, if you dig a little deeper into his character, not that of Christopher Boone, beyond the official biography and beyond Mark Haddon’s own website, from the interviews that he has given, you come up with some interesting facts. He is a very complex person, as I think many writers are, but despite all these little snippets about him, I somehow feel we are not really getting to know the real Mark Haddon. Nobody actually gets close to him, and there is a public persona that is Mark, and a very private person down below the surface. I feel there is a great deal more about himself that he has not revealed. I sense that he had a difficult childhood despite his privileged background. He glosses over his childhood a little too glibly except for a few brief references such as when he talks about : Layers of paradox and irony: The way he deals with the autism syndrome is much too easily done. I doubt whether he only learned about it through dealings with children when he worked with them. His knowledge is far too intimate, born of having been close to it. I see him as what can be termed “a recovered autistic”, someone who was a borderline case but who has overcome the illness. His biography is too clinical, too brief, too exact. You really don’t get the true picture of him.
Haddon is not surprised that this book has turned him into a ‘literary author’ because he had always hoped and dreamed of being there. His second novel was at that stage some six months away and only ten thousand words into being when the world erupted over The Curious Incident. Nevertheless his publishers felt he should strike while the iron is hot and get moving. Still Haddon saw the writing of the Curious Incident as not writing so much about a disability as much as writing about how having the disability affected the story and the writing thereof. Yet strangely, Mark Haddon never uses the term “autism” because through his actions and thought processes Christopher tells you all you need to know about the condition. . Haddon cites one woman to whom he spoke. She worked for another publisher to the one who had produced the book, and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize that there was actually anything wrong with Christopher” which was the cherry on top for Mark.
Yet the book has had a profound effect on many people. A number of people confess to thinking just like Christopher. Mark’s father had to change his evening walk route because he suddenly discovered three yellow cars parked up the street in a row. It was too much like becoming Christopher, so that it made him go around the block another way. After all, you can never be sure.
Mark’s next book, A Spot of Bother deals more human frailties, with Alzheimer’s, and his blog The Virtual Tour deals with this subject in depth, as well as the effects of nutritional drivel that we all swallow so gleefully. Although “A spot of Bother” does deal with human frailties, he is quick to point out that he is desperate not to be labeled a writer who can only write about disability and hang-ups. I just want to digress into this for a moment to illustrate a point.
Let me read to you what he says”
“I used to be wary of using aluminium cooking pans. They caused Alzheimer’s didn’t they. I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d read it, but I was pretty sure I’d read it somewhere authoritative, or heard it from someone who’d read it somewhere authoritative. Besides everyone else was wary of using aluminium cooking pans. So it was obviously true:
He goes on to say :
“Then I read David Shenk’s wonderful book “The Forgetting”: Alzheimer’s Portrait of an Epidemic – in which he tells the story of how the Nobel Laureate Torsten Wiesel mentioned at a New York Cocktail Party that there was a link between Alzheimer’s an aluminium. Word got out that he was writing a paper proving that aluminium causes Alzheimer’s (he wasn’t, he wasn’t even working on Alzheimer’s) and pretty soon millions of people were throwing away their saucepans.
Wiesel was in fact referring to the high levels of aluminium found during autopsies in the brains of people who had Alzheimer’s. Meaning only that something had gone wrong with the blood-brain barrier. We all ingest significant amounts of aluminium all the time. If we’re healthy, It’s kept out of the brain or it would do us serious damage. But for some people with Alzheimer’s the protective mechanism breaks down.
And as Schenk says, ‘avoiding aluminium pots in order to escape Alzheimer’s was like refusing to drink out of glasss containers because someone might come along and break one over your head.”
Now whilst this is not about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time it is interesting to read because it shows how deeply Mark Haddon investigates subjects, how much knowledge he gleans on things. However, my contention is, that, because so little confirmed knowledge exists regarding autism, his handling of Christopher shows a much greater insight into the subject than is currently available. Yes, there are many theories, but nobody has this uncanny depth of knowledge that he gives to Christopher.
I found his website fascinating. He is a man with definite opinions of a number of subjects, ranging from book signings to his fear of flying. He likes Sherlock Holmes and science websites.
One aspect of Mark Haddon that I have difficulty in understanding is his professed atheism. I really can’t accept that he is what he says he is. Referring to his best seller he says
“I’ve recently returned from a publicity tour of Italy. You get asked different questions in Italy. One which cropped up several times was : “Christopher is an atheist . Are you?”
I am. But I am atheist in a very religious mould. I’m always asking myself the big question. Where did we come from? Is there a meaning to all of this? I read the King James Bible, as all English writers should. And when I find myself in church, I edit the hymns as I sing them. Like President Clinton giving evidence to Kenneth Starr about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, just to make sure, I’m not technically lying – “All things bright and beautiful, the hmmm hmmm made them all.”
Religion provides believers with two contradictory things. It gives them answers. And it celebrates mystery. It reminds them that they are a vanishingly small part of a vast cosmos. And it shows them how they are intimately connected to every part of it.
Science and literature do this for me. They give me answers. And they ask me questions I will never be able to answer.
This is the nearest I come to what other people might call a religious experience.”
However, I feel that he has stopped too soon. With “And they ask me questions I will never be able to answer”. Of course he won’t, as he has stopped short of God. When you look at science and nature you have to believe in God. No cosmic action could ever have created such a master piece. I think like many, he does believe, he just doesn’t know how to interpret his belief – just like one with autism, who can’t make sense of the world, like Christopher who spends so much time analyzing, that he misses the whole point of life.
It is said that each author puts a little of himself into his books, and I am willing to bet that Christopher Boone is a large chunk of Mark Haddon.
Whatever your feelings, and your opinions on the story, and just for those of you who need refreshing, here are some of my favourite scenes in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: hopefully these will touch a heart-string with you too.:
174 vs 175 Understanding how Christopher sees the world
192 attention to detail
214 tube line information
I am not surprised that this book has won numerous awards. It has turned an ordinary author into a literary figure, something he had always dreamed about. It has opened up many questions in my mind and I will continue to go back to his website until I find the real Mark Haddon. “The website by the way is Mark Haddon’s The Virtual Tour”.
(Bespreek deur Margie Wilson)