October 3, 2008

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

When either Oprah or the Today Show tells me that I absolutely must read a book, I tend to think "yeah, uh huh, ok, definitely, maybe at some point..." This is partly because I'm a snot and just don't find the selections of mass media book clubs terribly interesting, and partly because there are too many books in the world and I will only get to read a fraction of them. Seriously, I have pangs of anxiety over the fact that I will never read everything I want to read before I die (and yes, I know how obsessive and lame that sounds). 

That said, I had been wanting to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Hadden (a Today Show Book Club selection a couple of years back) for quite a while, mostly because the title references the Sherlock Holmes mystery "Shoscombe Old Place" and I'm a Sherlock Holmes junkie. I finally got around to it last week-end. I finished it in a day and a half. It was wonderful.

This book manages to both charm and ache thanks to the author's empathy in portraying his narrator, Christopher Boone. Christopher is autistic and a mathematical prodigy. He numbers his chapters not with the cardinal numbers (1,2,3,4...), but with prime numbers, because he likes prime numbers and can count them up to 7,057. He also has a very difficult time understanding human emotions. He hates being touched and he hates the color yellow, but he likes animals because their faces can't lie. Though he doesn't like fiction, he does like mysteries because mysteries are a puzzle. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time begins as Christopher's account of a mystery he solves using "logic" like Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character whose emotional detachment he admires. What the book becomes however, is a portrait of Christopher's internal life and how it effects the people around him.

The book is well paced and very engaging, which is quite an achievement for a novel with an autistic protagonist. Hadden triumphs because of the skill and sensitivity with which he renders Christopher's voice. While this is anything but a sugary Disney-fication of autism, the novel also never descends into the gritty or truly disturbing (though there are some tense interpersonal moments). Hadden allows Christopher to narrate in a staccato, emotionally detached voice that manages to convey a world of emotion, both expressed and unexpressed, in himself and in others. What results is a book that relates not only Christopher's internal reality, but his external effect as well (as seen in his various relationships and encounters).

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was charming and touching, and insofar as a novel can be, more important than not. Hadden's empathy is... honestly, I don't have a word that hasn't been over-used... let's say that his empathy is prodigious and Christopher's voice is true. While I could still skip reading My Antonia with half the country, the Today Show Book Club got it right with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This is really a book to read.


JimDesu said...

Maybe I'll give it a shot on the airplane. :)

Madeleine said...

good idea - at the rate you read, you'll probably get through it before we land :)