Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Despite Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time seeming like one of those books that “everyone” has read since its 2003 publication, it was only two months ago when I first picked it up. Perhaps like a lot of readers, the book club in which I participate chose it for discussion. I went in knowing that I had heard both high praise and strong criticism for Haddon’s portrayal of a behaviorally disabled teenager, and I wondered which opinion I’d find more sympathetic. Turns out, I fall somewhere in the middle.

The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time by Mark Haddon (cover)Curious Incident concerns an English fifteen-year-old boy named Christopher John Francis Boone, who describes himself as a “mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.” He hates certain colors, touch makes him very uncomfortable, and he is very concerned to discover that his neighbor’s poodle has been murdered. He decides that he must investigate and find the dog’s killer, and he doesn’t understand why the dog’s owner and his father want him to leave it alone.

At the beginning, he tells us that his mom died two years prior and that his father told him it was “a problem with her heart.” At school, he works with a special teacher named Siobhan, and she tells him that he should write down his experiences, that he can make a book that says whatever he wants. He doesn’t like metaphors because they are lies – they describe something as being what it is not – but similes are okay because a simile is not a lie unless it is “a very bad one.”

So obviously he has some sensory issues, but they are not specifically identified. Christopher is somewhere on the autism spectrum, but we do not get a specific diagnosis. Because the story is told from Christopher’s point-of-view, we have to assume that he either doesn’t know his specific diagnosis, or he does not feel it important enough to share in reference to the story. He describes why he does things in a very matter of fact way – his world has a certain set of rules, and it does not occur to him to deviate.

The next day I saw 4 yellow cars in a row on the way to school, which made it a Black Day, so I didn’t eat anything at lunch and I sat in the corner of the room all day and read my A-level maths course book. And the next day, too, I saw 4 yellow cars in a row on the way to school which made it another Black Day too, so I didn’t speak to anyone and for the whole afternoon I sat in the corner of the Library groaning with my head pressed into the join between the two walls and this made me feel calm and safe. But on the third day I kept my eyes closed all the way to school until we got off the bus because after I have had 2 Black Days in a row I’m allowed to do that.

It’s a bit of a gimmick, yes, to write a story from a more “unusual” character in the first person. Haddon makes Christopher’s behavior consistent throughout the book, but I suppose the question is, does he accurately portray people who are on the spectrum? I don’t know enough about the different disorders to be authoritative in any way, except to say that I know people who share some similarities with some of his quirks.

In a 2009 blog entry, Haddon writes:

I did no research for Curious Incident… I’d read Oliver Sacks’s essay about Temple Grandin and a handful of newspaper and magazine articles about, or by, people with Asperger’s and autism.

However, as writer Greg Olear points out in this Huffington Post article, early promotion for the book included blurbs referencing Asperger’s and autism. Because of the book’s massive success, this led to Christopher’s behavior being some people’s first introduction to the disorder, much in the same way Rain Man did. Olear wonders if it is right that an author who did no real research could have his work used in an authoritative capacity. Olear’s opinion is also influenced by his son having Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s tends to be a relatively mild form of autistic spectrum disorder. Most aspies are “high-functioning.” They don’t refuse to go to school if they spy a yellow car, or curl up into a whimpering ball on a train because there are too many people around, as Boone does in Curious Incident. Indeed, if Christopher John Francis Boone has Asperger’s, as we’ve been led to believe, he has one of the most extreme forms of the disorder ever recorded.

Here’s my thinking: Haddon himself does not say that Christopher has Asperger’s, and it was the book’s cover – something that authors have very little control over – that first made this declaration. However, the copy I have is the fifteenth printing (must be nice!) and the cover, nor any of the extensive blurbs from journalists and authors, make any reference to any specific behavioral disorder. While I understand Olear’s overall point about not using this character as a definitive representation, I think that perhaps it was other people jumping to the Asperger’s conclusion, and not exactly the author himself. The complaint would perhaps be better directed at those people. Now, whether or not Haddon truly cares if people misinterpreted his character, I don’t know, but I don’t get the impression that his original intent was to mislead. His second novel, A Spot of Bother, has a hypochondriac main character, so perhaps if we can accuse him of anything, it’s that he enjoys the effect of framing his work around mental disorders, however undefined they may be.

As far as the story of Curious Incident itself goes, it’s still compelling, and it’s interesting to read a story so steeped in dramatic irony. Because Christopher can be oblivious to other people’s emotions, we are able to notice things that he does not, to read between the lines, even though he is the one presenting the information. The people around him have so many complex problems happening, and though he is well cared for, his behavior and day-to-day needs do come with stress and difficulty.

What made me think that the book was “fine enough” versus “quite good” is that the ending peters out a bit. There’s all this build up with the dog, his relationship with his neighbors, his father, his focus on passing his A-level maths at a young age – what happens feels anti-climatic. Yes, our own experiences can be like that, but we don’t always read books because we want them to be exactly like life.

As far as realistic portrayals and the autism spectrum go, I think it might be impossible to write a character who satisfies every person who has experience with those different disorders. While one person might have a kid or a friend who is very sensitive to touch and certain visuals, another person might have a completely unrelated set of difficulties. In that way, I understand Haddon’s hesitance to apply a label to Christopher, as sometimes it is with labels where we run into trouble. And yet, what responsibility do writers have when it comes to researching such a sensitive subject? It’s a difficult question.

I’m curious to know what you all think. Have you read the book? How did you find the character of Christopher? And what do you think of the behavior of the people around him? Should Mark Haddon have done more research and have been more specific with Christopher’s diagnosis?

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Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time by Mark Haddon”

  1. This was one of those books I couldn’t finish. Admittedly, it was some time ago that I tried to read it, but I just … didn’t enjoy it. I’m not entirely sure why, though. On the Aspergers side of things though, I loved Roopa Farooki’s The Way Things Look To Me.

  2. I haven’t read it yet but I’m on the waiting list for it through my library. I’ve known a few people with Asperger’s and I know some parents of autistic children, so I’m definitely going to keep your review and the comments below in mind when I do read it.

    1. That seems to be part of the complaints I’ve read — people who are on the spectrum have read it, compared notes with one another, and gone “Waaaaaait a minute, this isn’t quite right.” And that, I think, is where more research was needed so that he didn’t fall into that trap.

  3. I had a similar problem as you with the ending of the book – it left me really unsatisfied. Also, I read this shortly after reading Marcelo in the Real World, which I HIGHLY recommend, and found to be a better book. Marcelo in the Real World is also about a boy with a not-entirely-diagnosable autism spectrum disorder, so I couldn’t help comparing them when I read them, which I think made me like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time less than I would have if I’d read it first.

  4. I read the book quite a while ago but can only remember that people around me thought it was quite hilarious while I was pretty annoyed by the main character from time to time.

    I’m a bit torn over the research question. On the one hand you could call it the freedom of fiction writing. On the other: if you want to use that freedom, why not create something new or underline that you’re not using an existing condition?

  5. While I’m sympathetic to some of the criticism of this book, I’ve known and loved a lot of people on the autism spectrum. Lo and behold, they’re all unique individuals and their autism spectrum disorders affected each of their lives differently. There’s no one way to have autism or Asperger’s syndrome. I know plenty of people who are both high-functioning (which is a misleading term, and potentially damaging to folks whose ASD is more pervasive) and have many sensory processing challenges, similar to the characteristics Christopher displayed in the book. While Olear’s son’s Asperger’s syndrome doesn’t look like Christopher’s, it doesn’t mean Christopher has been written poorly.
    I feel like I’m stumbling here, but I think we do any group a disservice by assuming said group is monolithic.

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