Mark Haddon

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 03, 2003)

"My memory is like a film….And when people ask me to remember something I can simply press Rewind and Fast Forward and Pause like on a video recorder….If someone says to me, 'Christopher, tell me what your mother was like,' I can rewind to lots of different scenes and say what she was like in those scenes."

Writing his first novel from the point of view of an autistic 15-year-old, Mark Haddon takes the reader into the chaos of autism and creates a character of such empathy that many readers will begin to feel for the first time what it is like to live a life in which there are no filters to eliminate or order the millions of pieces of information that come to us through our senses every instant of the day. For the autistic person, most stimuli register with equal impact, and because these little pieces of information cannot usually be processed effectively, life becomes a very confusing mess of constantly competing signals.

Read excerptChristopher, at fifteen, has been attending a special school for most of his life, living at home with his father, a heating contractor who works long hours. A savant at math, he sometimes calms himself by listing prime numbers and squaring the number two in his head, and he tells us that his "record" is 2 to the 45th power. His teacher Siobhan has been showing him ways to deal with his environment more effectively, and at fifteen he is on the verge of gaining some tenuous control over the mass of stimuli which often sidetrack him. Innocent and honest, he sees things logically and interprets the spoken word literally, unable to recognize the clues which would tell him if someone is being dishonest or devious or even facetious. "I find it hard to imagine things which did not happen to me," he says. He can understand similes ("[The rain] was falling so hard that it looked like white sparks.") because he can see the similarities in appearance between the heavy rain and white sparks, but he cannot understand metaphors, which omit "like" and "as" and simply make statements, which, he feels, are not true. As he explains, "When I try…[to imagine] an apple in someone's eye, [it] doesn't have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about."

When Wellington, the pet poodle who lives across the street, is stabbed with a pitchfork and killed, Christopher decides to solve the mystery and write a book about it. Using his favorite novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as his model, he investigates the crime, uncovering many secrets involving his own family in the process. As he applies the lessons which Siobhan has given him for dealing with his overwhelming outside world, he also embarks on a most unusual, if not unique, coming-of-age story, and ends the book a much more mature 15-year-old than he was when he started.

Using the simple subject-verb-object sentence pattern in which Christopher tries to order and communicate with his world, Haddon tells his story with warmth and often humor, making us see and understand Christopher's problems at the same time that we experience everyone else's frustrations in dealing with him. All Christopher's conversations and the events he experiences are recalled from his own point of view, and the reader can easily see how difficult his world is, both for him and for those around him. As he seeks to order his day by the number of cars he sees of the same color (four red cars in a row mean a wonderful day, while four yellow cars mean a bad day, in which case he does not eat lunch and will not speak), we see how desperate he is to find some pattern which will enable him to make sense of his world. He hopes that by writing his book about the death of Wellington, he will be able to emulate his idol, Sherlock Holmes, about whom Watson says, "His mind…was busy in endeavoring to frame some scheme into which all these strange and apparently disconnected episodes could be fitted."

Investigating Wellington's death requires Christopher to venture forth from the safe world of familiar people and places, and this venturing forth is fraught with problems. Strange places are particularly traumatic. As he explains, "When I am in a new place, because I see everything, it is like when a computer is doing too many things at the same time and the central processor unit is blocked up and there isn't any space left to think about other things….And sometimes when I am in a new place and there are lots of people there it is like a computer crashing and I have to close my eyes and put my hands over my ears and groan, which is like pressing CTRL + ALT + DEL and shutting down programs and turning the computer off and rebooting so that I can remember what I am doing and where I am meant to be going."

Christopher's difficulties with his emotions are particularly poignant. "Feelings," he says, "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." Removed from his feelings, Christopher can only respond with logic, or with the anger which sometimes overwhelms him as result of fear or frustration, and the reader, responding to his difficulties as any loving caregiver would, cannot help aching for Christopher and empathizing with his family.

As Christopher investigates Wellington's death, he makes some remarkably brave decisions and when he eventually faces his fears and moves beyond his immediate neighborhood, the magnitude of his challenge and the joy in his achievement are overwhelming. Haddon creates a fascinating main character and allows the reader to share in his world, experiencing his ups and downs and his trials and successes. In providing a vivid world in which the reader participates vicariously, Haddon fulfills the most important requirements of fiction, entertaining at the same time that he broadens the reader's perspective and allows him to gain knowledge. This fascinating book should attract legions of enthusiastic readers.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 1759 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Mark HaddonMark Haddon is a writer and illustrator of several award-winning children's books and television screenplays. As a young man, Haddon worked with autistic individuals. He teaches creative writing for the Arvon Foundation and at Oxford University.

Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, won both the Whitbread Novel of the Year and the overall winner in 2004.

He lives in Oxford, England, with his wife and son.

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