I’ve just finished re-reading this classic story, which came out in 2003. When I first read it, it became one of my all-time favourites. My second reading of it has only deepened my love for such a remarkable book.
In the modern world, with so much choice for people to kill their free time and attention spans getting shorter than ever, the simple pleasure of reading a good book has taken a back-seat. It’s easy for something great to pass us by; with new books having to compete with ever more all-time classics, it is impossible to read everything worth reading. It takes a really special book to be classified as a must-read. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, is one such book.
The book is the story of Christopher Boone, an autistic teenager who attends a special needs school, and who lives with his father and his pet rat. Early in the story, Christopher finds his neighbour's dog has been killed. After being wrongly-accused by the police of committing the crime, he lashes out at the officer and is arrested. Upon his release, he decides to invoke the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, who he greatly admires, and begins his investigation into the murder of Wellington the dog.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tells the tale of Christopher’s exploration into the death of the dog, but it is not a mere murder-mystery story, like Christopher imagines it will be. It is an insight into how an autistic person may see the world, highlighting some of the difficulties they face and how their perception of reality is different from the norm. It is a book about the everyday, elevated to the exceptional through the eyes of an extraordinary boy. It is a tale of betrayal, compassion, heartbreak, beauty and joy. It is the journey of a broken family working through the most emotional scenarios with a boy that struggles to understand how and why people feel the way they do. There is an intense building of tension throughout which comes from understanding what is going on in a way that Christopher cannot, and hearing him describe the circumstances he is encountering so factually, while being able to read between the lines in a way he is unable to. This makes the sadness hit so much harder when it comes, and Christopher’s eventual triumph feel so much more glorious.
What I particularly enjoy about the book, in addition to the fantastic story, is the writing style Haddon uses. Eschewing much of the flowery, poetic styles many writers rely upon, Haddon demonstrates Christopher’s literal, logical brain through short, snappy paragraphs that, very occasionally, give way to longer tangents about niche subjects. It’s really clever how Haddon uses style as an extension of the character, utilising it to develop the picture of who Christopher is and how he experiences the world in much greater detail than simple description ever could. Haddon breaks so many rules of writing, starting multiple sentences with, ‘And then this,’ or, ‘Then s/he said.’ It reads a bit like a first draft rather than a finished book, but it very quickly becomes so normal that it leaves you wondering why more stories aren’t written so simply. The contrast to traditional writing styles helps emphasise the neurodiversity of the main character, and Christopher’s personality and mind becomes so much more real because of it. Breaking the rules, like Christopher eventually learns, is sometimes the only way to achieve what you need to do, and Haddon does this in a way that makes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time a fun and easy book to read.
This book is so good. If it was up to me, reading and analysing it would be on the agenda in every school. That it is such a wonderful story is reason enough; that it teaches us so much about writing, about neurodiversity, about misunderstandings, emotions and human relationships upgrades it to essential reading. If everybody was to read this book, the world would be a kinder, more patient, more compassionate place. Most writers spend their lives trying to create their masterpiece. Mark Haddon achieved that in his debut novel, conjuring up a story that will change the way you see the world, and make it that much more special. Fantastic.
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An excerpt of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, read by Mark Haddon:
"And then I thought that I had to be like Sherlock Holmes and I had to detach my mind at will to a remarkable degree so that I did not notice how much it was hurting inside my head."
"People say that you always have to tell the truth. But they do not mean this because you are not allowed to tell old people that they are old and you are not allowed to tell people if they smell funny or if a grown-up has made a fart. And you are not allowed to say “I don't like you” unless that person has been horrible to you."
"And this is why people's brains are like computers. And it's not because they are special but because they have to keep turning off for fractions of a second while the screen changes. And because there is something they can't see people think it has to be special, because people always think there is something special about what they can't see, like the dark side of the moon, or the other side of a black hole, or in the dark when they wake up at night and they're scared.
Also people think they're not computers because they have feelings and computers don't have feelings. But feelings are just having a picture on the screen in your head of what is going to happen tomorrow or next year, or what might have happened instead of what did happen, and if it is a happy picture they smile and if it is a sad picture they cry."
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"One of the most insightful works I've read on mental health problems in men ... very well-written and a real page-turner. I would recommend it to anyone.
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