Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

This is a book that I’ve owned for a long time but had just never got around to reading up until now. It came to my attention around the same time that it was published so I probably purchased it back in 2004. At the very least, my copy has an Ottakar’s stick on it so I must have bought it there (probably the one in the Ridings Centre in Wakefield – ah memory, how well you serve me!) - before the takeover by Waterstone’s (which seems like a life time ago now but was really only back in 2006.)

This is a fate that quite frequently befalls my book purchases. Some books I will read as soon as they’re in my possession but others will go onto a shelf and don’t see the light of day again until they’re unearthed, seemingly at random, several years later. This one actually got a reprieve when my mum discovered, read and enjoyed it at some point after I left home. She then sent it on to me about four months ago. When this book was chosen as one of the monthly reads in my Goodreads group, it was the perfect excuse to finally force myself to get around to reading it.

Presentation: A large paperback made of good quality paper. There are 268 pages broken down into “233” chapters. The narrator does not like the idea of using a normal counting method for his chapter headings so he chooses to use a sequence of prime numbers instead. The book also includes several graphs, diagrams and drawings.

Story: Christopher Boone is 15 years old and he has Asperger’s syndrome. This means that intellectually he is a genius but he is incapable of normal human interaction. One night he finds his neighbour’s dog dead, rammed through with a garden fork. Christopher liked Wellington the poodle so he decides to do some detecting to see if he can find Wellington’s murderer.

Thoughts and impressions: After having read several books with soppy or flowery narrators, this book was a complete breath of fresh air. Christopher does not see the world the same way as a normal person does and as a first person narrator this means that the voice of the story is very different to any other that I have read. The idea is that Christopher has decided to chronicle his investigation (with support from his class teacher) so he really is telling his own story.

Towards the start of the book, Christopher explains that he understands the emotions behind :) and :( but anything more complicated than that goes straight over his head and he has to rely on knowledge of what he thinks the facial expression should mean. He can’t read people’s emotions. He can’t understand implicitations in speech (cf Grice). He does not like being touched. He has little routines that help him get through his day and he does not like it when there are factors that intervene and upset his timetable. I liked all of the little snapshots into Christopher’s mind, like how he likes the colour red but he avoids anything that’s yellow or brown; how he can’t eat food that has touched another type of food on the plate but it doesn’t matter if the different food items touched before they were on the plate. It was a very informative look into how things are for an autistic person. Considering the fact that the author has worked with autistic children, this is also a very informed look into this sort of life. The reactions of the people around him are always realistic too. I particularly liked the elderly neighbour with the dachshund.

There were plenty of scenes that were very emotionally powerful for me, especially the scene where Christopher is taking the underground. I felt completely overwhelmed by the situation right along with him. Another thing that I found to be very interesting was the addition of what I’m going to term ‘side chapters’ where Christopher would explain a moment from his life, a scientific theory or maths problem. Some of these interrupted the flow of the story, but others really added to it. In particular, I liked his ideas about the images we see in the stars and how Orion the hunter could just as easily be a T.rex – I had to stop and laugh at that bit. It is, however, obvious that the book is now a little dated as some of the scientific theories presented have now ‘evolved’ from the one presented by Christopher. I feel that, despite them digressing from the main plot, it was very important to include all of these passages as science and maths are Christopher’s main interests so obviously he would want to talk about them in the same way that a protagonist who wants to grow up to be a professional singer and dancer would refer to singing and dancing a lot.

Style: Christopher tells it like it is. He basically reports everything that goes on around him, both his thoughts and what people say to him. Because of the way the world works for him, he only ever uses the tag “said” – and then I said, and then he said, and I said, and then he said, etc. Eventually it got to the point where I’d skip over that bit, but at the same time it was such a refreshing change from all the whispers, murmurs, growls, grumbles, stammers and everything else that litter the tags now instead of using the perfectly good said.
(Just to be clear, I don’t think said should be used all the time, but I also don’t think that said should be avoided at all costs and replaced with a multitude of other verbs. There is a healthy balance.)

Final verdict: I really enjoyed this read. It was a refreshing change and I feel ready to go back to the murky waters of purple prose. The author recognised that this book could not be a long one and, for me, 250 pages was the perfect length. I feel that I could not have read this style in a much longer book without starting to get frustrated with it. 4 stars

Extra notes: As mentioned, Christopher reports everything around him, especially in speech. This means that there is a lot of swearing in this book, including one use of the c-word. There is no sex.

Extra extra notes: Christopher talks about The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle in one of the chapters. This contains spoilers for the book so you might want to read that one first… although I have to admit that I’ve now forgotten everything I read about it. But it’s possible that it would come back to me when reading the book.

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