A fast paced 21st century British mystery novel (based in Swindon) narrated by the fictional teenage schoolboy Christopher Boone is a gripping coming-of-age page turner accessible for young readers and adults alike. And without even naming the condition Christopher has we are aware that he has some form of autism due to unusual traits which he describes himself as being ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties.’
Haddon has been criticised for his depiction of autism relying on stereotypes such as his protagonist’s incredible memory and obsession with food colour and prime numbers along with his lack of empathy and ability to understand everyday situations. Although it is not the first time autism has featured as a theme in a film or a book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has opened up an otherwise untapped market after publication. There was a huge interest in the subject and Haddon filled arts centres for talks on the subject following its publication, while a play based on the novel was produced and a film version has been planned. Translated into 35 languages and clearly a smash hit Haddon has refused to say he is an autism expert but simply a writer. It is after all a novel. A novel set in Swindon. How everyday is that?
Prior to this the 1988 movie Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman as Raymond brought attention to the condition which at the time was seen negatively at best or denied at worst. Barry Monrow’s script revealed how autism can have a redemptive side. In his narrative Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise) comes to terms with his brother Raymond in a road movie with a difference. Likewise in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time there brings a greater understanding eventually between confused Christopher and his father Ed and his estranged mother Judy.
Since then autism has if not become mainstream but at least has been recognised by society as something that exists. Science fiction had previously featured characters with autism in a raft of novels going back to the 1960s but Haddon opened up a new genre with a number of novels finding publication since then such as Siobhan Dowd’s 2008 The London Eye Mystery and the 2010 novel by Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird amongst others.
The novel was lauded with a Whitbread Book Award for Best Novel and Book of the Year, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize because of the way Christopher describes his world in the first person. He is given his voice. And one of Christopher’s motivations is his sense of right and wrong viewing life’s complexities in black and white. Which in its own way creates a series of set piece confrontations in the story.
Another of the themes in the novel is the extreme pressure a child ‘with some behavioural difficulties’ can have on a relationship. While some families cope and adjust many do not and in Christopher’s case the strain was enough to collapse the marriage of Ed and Judy who found different ways to escape including denial and running away.
The hero is Siobhan who understands Christopher and as his school teacher helps him to understand the wider world with helpful advice. In chapter 149 following a fight with his father about his writing his investigation into the dead dog in a book he went to school with a bruise on his face. “Siobhan asked me why I had a bruise on the side of my face. I said Father was angry and he had grabbed me so I had hit him and then we had a fight. Siobhan asked whether Father had hit me and I said I didn’t know because I got very cross and it made my memory go strange.”
Under further questioning she said that grabbing was OK if it is on your shoulder or arm but hitting is not allowed and grabbing hair or their face is not acceptable. Siobhan clearly understands what is going on and attempts to put into context what is happening behind closed doors and guides Christopher’s thoughts to a more normal pattern of behaviour as to what is acceptable.
Christopher’s investigations eventually discover a terrible family lie. It’s a dramatic moment and redirects the story but also returns to the fundamental stress that an autistic child can have on a relationship. Being a parent is tough at the best of times but the Christopher’s of this world put pressure on families which can reach breaking point.
An easy to read novel due to the very straightforward thought process of the protagonist, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is rightfully seen as a modern classic for its clarity and ability to communicate its protagonist’s mind set and also for its everyday setting and its everyday language.
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