My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A lot of the time when we talk about writing, we say it’s because we “want to get into someone else’s head.”
But that’s not true, is it? A lot of the time, we want to be ourselves, but in someone else’s life. You want to stop being a truck driver who takes the same route to work every day, day after day, and be a prince fighting faeries instead; you want to not be a frazzled mother of three young kids and instead be a footloose woman who can pick up and find herself in countries totally different from your real world; you want to not be a lost teenager in a scary world with things out of your control, because you’d rather be a boy wizard who has amazing friends and literally saves the world.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a rare book that literally puts you inside someone else’s mind. And it’s incredibly disorienting at first, but all the more powerful for this transformation.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a story about a deeply autistic boy, Christopher, who discovers his neighbor’s dog is dead and decides to be a detective like the Sherlock Holmes stories he likes to read, and he writes down everything that happens in a book he began making as a class assignment.
Because he is autistic (and because author Mark Haddon is very good at what he does and has worked with special needs kids), Christopher’s writings are not like anything else. There’s very little emotion, not much introspection. There are math problems. Chapters are numbered with sequential prime numbers. There are very precise drawings of the patterns of the fabric of a new chair.
The presumably non-autistic reader is left to fill in a lot of the gaps in the story, because while Christopher is perhaps the most literal narrator in some senses (describing even the number of holes in someone’s shoe, and the exact color of the beans on the plate), his perceptual lapses means he truly can’t understand some things. But the reader can, making this book a lot more interactive between the character and the reader than most.
It’s hard to relate directly to Christopher, and that’s what makes this book so compelling. You see through his eyes and are frustrated that he misinterprets information that seems so obvious. The people all around him–even his pet rat sometimes!–are more like the reader than Christopher, and you feel their frustration with dealing with Christopher’s many needs, with his seeming dichotomy between a kid who is stunning at some things and completely empty in others.
It’s a lesson in empathy, if nothing else.
This book isn’t an easy read, and it’s not a happy read, either, and I’m mystified by the quotes on the cover exclaiming the “bleak humor” within, because I found nothing funny–just sad. Because as more children are diagnosed with autism and society finds ways to cope, much of what happens in the book is barely fiction for many parents and teachers and caregivers. I can’t imagine the pain it must cause those real parents who have to find strategies to manage real Christophers.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a fantastically written book, but be prepared for something a bit more weighty than your average fare.