I first saw this book on the shelves when Jennifer and I visited Ireland in May 2006. When we got back I started seeing it on the shelves in America as well. Everybody kept recommending it to me. “Have you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time yet?” they’d ask me, and each time I’d have to hang my head in shame as I answered “No”. Then I’d try to perk up and say, “But I’ve seen it on the shelves, and I fully intend to read it!” to which they’d reply, “Yes, that’s what you said last time, Richard.” So finally I went out and bought this book.
I wasn’t disappointed.
I’d like to call this book whimsical, but that isn’t quite right. It is funny at times, and there were a few times when I laughed out loud as I read it. But it is at its core about an autistic teenager who is desperately trying to make sense of the world around him. When Christopher Boone decides, at the suggestion of one of his teachers, to write a book, he decides to write a mystery novel based on the murder of his neighbor’s dog; but as he investigates the mystery, what seems to be a fairly straightforward mystery gets to the heart of who Chris thinks he is and some of the incidents that have defined his whole life.
Where Haddon really succeeds, though, is in presenting Chris’s thought processes and ideas. We get to see Chris figure out the best way of solving a mystery, try to comprehend human behavior when he doesn’t really have the tools to do so, and get into topics of mathematics and logic. Some of these forays into mathematics — such as his explanation of prime numbers and how to figure out which numbers are prime, or certain logic puzzles — may seem irrelevant to the overall story, but they reveal Chris in a way that simple narrative can’t. In spite of Chris’s unusual ways of being in the world, the reader gets caught up in him, and sympathizes deeply with him.
Haddon has been justly praised for his sympathetic and thoughtful treatment of an autistic main character. He has also been praised for his accuracy in presenting an autistic person’s thoughts. While I agree that his characterization of Chris is sympathetic and thoughtful, I’m not sure I can speak to the second point. I’ve only read one book by an autistic person — Nobody Nowhere by Donna Williams — and the way she wrote about her experiences differed greatly than the experiences that Haddon wrote for Chris.
Still, realistic or not, Chris comes across as realistic and sympathetic.