The Books

Book #8

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, Mark Haddon

Recommended by Helen Pendell. Helen teaches English at Aldwickbury and recommended this with the quip “it had to be a kids book  – I only teach Year 5 & 6 English and haven’t quite progressed on to grown-up books”!

I was delighted that she recommended it, as I missed out on the chance of going to see the play adaptation a few years ago: all of my colleagues that went said that it was fantastic. I, perhaps obviously, chose to read this immediately after A Boy made of blocks as having mugged up on a quick one-sentence description of what all of the 40 books were about, I couldn’t resist the idea of reading a book written from the viewpoint of a narrator with ASD after one written from the viewpoint of a parent of a child with ASD.

This is a fantastic book. Christopher, the narrator, has Asperger’s syndrome. We are told this on the book cover, but nowhere in the book is this mentioned. Christopher only ever mentions himself as “someone who has behavioural problems”. Indeed, Haddon has come to regret this:

“…I regret the words ‘Asperger Syndrome’ appearing on the original cover of Curious Incident is that it sparked a sometimes heated and often misguided debate which rumbles on quietly to this day. In short, is Christopher a correct representation of someone with the condition? The assumption being that there is indeed a correct representation of someone with the condition. I think it is indicative of the way we think about people we label ‘disabled’ that we can even ask this question. We would never ask if a character in a novel was a correct representation of a cellist or a lesbian or an archbishop. There is no such thing. And the same is true for people who are given the label ‘disabled’. They are as various and individual as any other group in society.” (from his own website)

It is also a book about somebody writing a book, a detective story, a study of the unravelling of family relationships and an indictment of those who fail to recognise how to treat people that they struggle to understand. Initially published with different covers aimed at both an adult and child audience, this book must surely speak to almost any reader, with several different layers of complexity at which one could analyse it, indeed even follow the story.

He also says that he has repeatedly stated that this is a book about difference, not disability: it celebrates difference in the most wonderful way. Although Christopher is unable to understand emotion and struggles with nuance, his detailed descriptions of events allow, indeed force, the reader to fill in the blanks. It is a fantastically clever way of approaching the story, and very fulfilling for the reader – it is almost as if one is involved with writing the book as the pages pass. One experiences huge surges of emotion as one reads, from heart-warming to heart-rending. The dispassionate way of describing the aftermath of the letter scene is absolutely extraordinary, and the way we realise time is passing during his train journey really makes one think about how somebody with a differently wired brain may react to a “perfectly ordinary” trip.

I have read up a little on Haddon’s approach to this book, and it turns out:

i know very little about the subject. i did no research for curious incident (other than photographing the interiors of swindon and paddington stations). i’d read oliver sacks’s essay about temple grandin and a handful of newspaper and magazine articles about, or by, people with asperger’s and autism. i deliberately didn’t add to this list. imagination always trumps research. i thought that if i could make Christopher real to me then he’d be real to readers. i gave him some rules to live by and some character traits and opinions, all of which i borrowed from people i know, none of whom would be labelled as having a disability. judging by the reaction, it seems to have worked.” (capitalisation, or lack of, is Haddon’s own: quote from his website.)

This makes the book even more extraordinary by my reckoning. Haddon has complained about people using this book as a bible for autism, or similar, and is reportedly fed up of being asked to speak as an expert on these matters. ASD is a complicated condition, and no two people with the condition are alike – much as no two people without it are alike. It would be foolish therefore to read this book and assume we know how an autistic person feels or will react. What this book really should make the reader do is stop and think about how they would react if they came across a person with ASD having a bad episode, or how they could talk to the next person they meet that is different. The fact that this book is now on the GCSE syllabus is heartening – perhaps it can help educate today’s youth to celebrate difference rather than strive for unattainable and meaningless homogeneity.


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