Recently I picked up Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the urging of a friend, knowing nothing about it. It’s the fictional story of autistic teenager Christopher Boone and what comes of his quest to solve the murder of a neighbor’s dog.
I have mixed feelings about the book. On one hand, I liked how Christopher’s character is developed and how he is portrayed as complicated yet engaging. His story is told in first person, which helps the reader connect with him and get a glimpse into his thought process. I’ll leave it to a person with autism to judge the accuracy of Christopher’s voice, but I found it refreshing. The story contained little humor as most would understand it, but Christopher is witty in a unique, deadpan way that I enjoyed. I liked his passion for math and science and his dedication to solving the mystery.
Haddon’s writing is clipped and bare bones, but this style fits Christopher’s tendency to prefer simple fact to flowery description. Still, I wished there was some small variety in syntax to minimize the jarring effect of Haddon’s style. I do appreciate that Christopher’s voice is consistent from beginning to end, and I appreciate the simplicity and clarity of his narrative; it was very different from a typical “murder mystery” novel, yet there were occasional plot twists that are reminiscent of one.
One problem I have with this novel is the pacing. The novel isn’t as action-packed as I expected, and the plot drags frequently. Without giving too much away, certain events seemed highly improbable and near-absurdist given Christopher’s situation. Almost no secondary characters are developed, and while this is understandable given Christopher’s inward focus, it took away from the story, which at times read like Christopher’s diary and not like a mystery. Although this did give great insight into Christopher’s mind, I don’t think Haddon should have sacrificed as much plot as he did to achieve that insight.
Christopher’s autism permeates the story, from all the chapters being prime numbers to the diagrams that often take the place of words. Yet I found it strange that it is never stated that he has autism, only inferred by the reader based on his thoughts and actions. I always relish literature that features disability, but I would’ve liked to see Christopher a little more aware of his differences from his peers. I feel like Haddon just looked at the common traits of autism and decided to write Christopher based on that, and I think he missed an opportunity by not expanding Christopher’s autism beyond stereotypes. For example, instead of merely having meltdowns and screaming fits because there were too many people at the mall, Christopher could have explained why crowded places cause him to panic and what exactly sensory overload feels like. (I have also experienced sensory overload; not many people know how painful it is, so I was peeved that it wasn’t explained a bit more.) Christopher hates loud noises and crowds, yet he is able to go to London alone on a crowded train, which baffled me, and there are a lot of other inconsistencies in the description and range of his abilities.
While the novel had some high points, I didn’t find it satisfying as either a mystery or a narrative on autism, and I feel Haddon missed what could have been an opportunity to shed light on the condition, or at least to write a compelling murder mystery.
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