The International Writers Magazine

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
by Mark Haddon
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Jonathon Cape 2003
ISBN: 0 099 450 259

Liz Barlow

Christopher Boone is fifteen and from Swindon. His next-door neighbour’s dog has been murdered with a garden fork and nobody seems to care. His mother died suddenly and mysteriously, and if that wasn’t enough, Christopher has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism.

The plotline of this novel may seem far-fetched then, considering it was originally written for children, yet this award-winning book (Whitbread 2003 and Children’s Book of the year) has somehow transcended the barrier between children’s literature and adult fiction.

Haddon writes from Christopher’s point of view. This is perhaps a risky narrative, yet through his voice, this relatively new form of autism (which has only been a clinical diagnosis since1994), is explored.
A fair question to ask then, would be whether this extraordinarily successful novel is a genuine attempt to dispel misconceptions surrounding autism, or whether it is a desperate attempt to cash in on this un-marked, un-exploited territory?

Anyone who has read this novel will tell you what a compelling story it is – an old-fashioned mystery adventure with more than a hint of drama, but what have they learnt from it?

Haddon uses characters to highlight the general misunderstandings and intolerance towards autistic people. From neighbours to policemen, these figures represent common ideas, for example, that autistic people are simply rude, misbehaved, or stupid. These characters are portrayed as mildly villainous; they swear excessively and use patronising, sarcastic tones. A good example of this is the scene on the train in which Christopher encounters many ‘stranger dangers.’ He is hiding on a shelf when somebody says, ‘Come and look at this Barry, they’ve got a train elf,’ (p.32). All the while the image of a vulnerable boy hiding and scared is haunting and disconcerting. We are encouraged to empathise with Christopher’s confusion and fears so that we, as a collective, will be more considerate of autistic people.

The parents are also important characters to consider. Through them we are given an insight into the difficulties of bringing up an autistic child, which could help young parents. For example, when Christopher comes home complaining that a boy had called him a ‘spazzer,’ his father gives the age-old response, ‘that Terry was just jealous’ (p.32). This reminds us of our own parents, and so Christopher is not so different from us – he suffers from growing pains as much as any teenager.

One criticism of this novel however, is that although it is written from the point of view of an autistic child, it is unlikely that he could articulate his thoughts so clearly in real life. As Eric Chen, a writer and autistic sufferer, puts it, ‘ Warning: This book will not help you understand real autistics.’ A worrying comment, since the National Autistic Society commonly recommends this book for parents and teachers. Apparently, autistic children are not as self-aware as Haddon would have us believe, nor do they think as logically in our sense of the word. Though these may be fundamental flaws, it is clear that they are necessary to produce a best seller. If a sugarcoated perspective of autism was not given, there would indeed be no coherent story.

By the end of the book, a clear insight and awareness is gained from the portrayal of Christopher. We know that he is not rude, misbehaved, and he is definitely not stupid. Haddon’s novel deserves all it’s praise and success, as the final conclusion of the story hopefully marks a beginning of tolerance and an open attitude towards autism.
© Liz Barlow December 2006

Liz is a Creative Writing student at the University of Portsmouth
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