Sunday, April 08, 2012

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

Mark Haddon's 2 million selling "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" has been recommended to me on a number of times, so when I saw a World Book Night copy in the charity shop for £1.25 I decided to pick it up. It's rather irrelevant to "review" a book from 2003, which won the Whitbread and was a bestseller - I may well be the last person to have read it!

Yet there are some interesting questions of literary worth and reputation hidden away in the novel that I might tease out. The novel, as most people know, is a story of a teenage boy who has some kind of autism that means he goes to a "special school" even though the nature of his condition means that he is studying for A Levels in his favourite subject - maths. Christopher is a particular kind of unreliable narrator - in that he doesn't register what other people are feeling, but at the same time is incapable of telling the truth. Fused with his condition, is a plot based around a murder-mystery - of Wellington, his neighbour's dog. Christopher likes "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and this is another dog that didn't bark in the night time (a sign in this case that he was killed by someone who knew him.) Happy in his own way, but very aware of his limitations (he has bad days when he doesn't say a thing because he's seen 5 yellow cars going past) its a lovely act of teenage ventriloquism. Christopher tells us lots about himself and (more importantly to him) his interests - as a bright child might always do to an adult inquisitor.

The book is set in the kind of low-grade suburbia that rarely makes it into adult novels, but is an ever-present in the suburban children's fiction from which the book comes. "A first novel" for adults by a writer who had previously written a dozen or more for children - Haddon uses all his skills of empathy to create an engaging narrative. More problematic are the adults in the book. It's almost as if, in order to make this book for adults, rather than children, he's simply added lots of swear words, and a few adult themes, around sex and adultery. Yet we're so seeing the world through Christopher's eyes that the adult world is almost as mysterious to us as for Christopher. Living just with his father, the subtext to the novel is the devastation a child with problems can have on the adults who have to care for them. Though not a political novel, there's a sense of the isolation which people in this situation find themselves in in modern Britain. However, because Christopher is in a special school (rather than, say, in a mainstream school with a statement of special needs) there's a sense of isolation here as well. Christopher has no peers; his fellow pupils are referred to only by their (more serious) problems.

What is interesting about the novel is the way that, despite its careful narrative - based around the threats to Christopher's "safe" world and his quest to beat his own limitations - Haddon gives us an insight into Christopher's life through pictures, footnotes and mathematics puzzles. Ostensibly the story that Christopher is writing at his teacher's bequest, he fills it with the thing's he's interested in. It's as digressive a quest novel as "Tristam Shandy" or "The Rings of Saturn" - yet this is the most populist of novels. It's fascinating how some of the tropes of more experimental fiction are now routinely deployed in an easy-to-read bestseller. Whether or not you merely glance at the math's problems or learn something by concentrating on them, it's a powerful way of getting into Christopher's head.

Yet despite this apparatus, the one thing that I came away with was doubting, in many ways, whether this is actually an "adult" novel at all. For Haddon's adults lack the very thing that Christopher is given in spades; they have no obvious motivation. In David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" a dissolving marriage is seen obliquely from the side - but here the marriage has already ended; and the implication, I guess, is that having a child with behavioural problems can break even a strong marriage. Poignant letters from Christopher's mother are badly spelt to such an extent that seems ridiculous in someone who is working as a secretary; whilst his dad, a plumber, is one thirds new man (looking after his disabled son with more patience than his mother managed) to two thirds misanthropic white van man. In teen-narrated fictions its always difficult to see the adult characters clearly, as teenage insight is at best, self-involved; yet the paper-thin characterisations wouldn't really stand up in daytime soap.

The success of the novel has lead to Haddon releasing two other books - another novel and a collection of poetry - and the children's writing has taken a backseat; but it's interesting that in a decade where the Harry Potter books have seen adults reading children's fiction without guilt, one of the bestselling books of the decade has been a children's book in all but name. Whereas novels like "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Tom Sawyer" have appealed to children because of the age of their protagonist, "The Curious Incident..." is a strangely innocent hybrid. It's closer to those massively successful Sue Townsend books, like Adrian Mole and "The Queen and I", the mundane background (Swindon in this case) providing an easy backdrop for an awkward life. What particular aspect of the novel caught the zeitgeist is hard to know - but its probably the winning directness of Christopher as a protagonist, letting us into his world.


Shelley said...

As a writer, the mention of Mockingbird will always get my attention.

Thanks for a thoughtful review; I too have seen this book many times, but now feel more interested....

Matthew Selwyn said...

It never too late to review a book! Always good to hear someone else's opinion and you make some really good points about YA books in the last decade or so - it's been particularly interesting to see how the genre has developed into very much it's own, defined category.

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