Cecily's Reviews > The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
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Oct 18, 14

bookshelves: miscellaneous-fiction

First person tale of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome or high-functioning autism, and a talent for maths, who writes a book (this one - sort of - very post modern) about his investigations of the murder of a neighbour's dog. He loves Sherlock Holmes and is amazingly observant of tiny details, but his lack of insight into other people's emotional lives hampers his investigation. Nevertheless, he has to overcome some of his deepest habits and fears, and he also uncovers some unexpected secrets.

It is primarily a YA book, but there is more than enough to it to make it a worthwhile adult read as well.

Prime Chapters and Structural Quirks
The structure of the book (chapter numbers are all primes; inclusion of maths puzzles and diagrams) and narrative style (attention to detail, excessive logic, avoidance of metaphor) reflect Christopher's mindset and way of viewing life. It is peppered with snippets of maths and explanations of his condition: how it affects him, and what coping strategies he adopts. The effect is plausibly stilted and occasionally breathless, which is reminiscent of people I know who are on the autistic spectrum and tallies with my limited reading about the condition. (Note that neither autism nor Asperger's is mentioned by name in the book, although in my first edition, neurologist Oliver Sacks does mention it in a quote on the front cover.)

Honest but Unreliable Narrator?
Christopher's condition makes him very literal - something he is aware of. He can analyse a joke, but still not "get" it. Truth is paramount, so he hates situations where he can't tell the truth (e.g. for politeness) and indeed the fact that "everything you tell is a white lie" because you can never give a fully comprehensive answer to anything. He also hates metaphors (even "the word metaphor is a metaphor", meaning "carrying something from one place to another"), but he doesn't mind similes because they are not untrue. Christopher's feelings about metaphors are highly pertinent to a very different book, China Mieville's wonderful "Embassytown" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which is about how minds shape language and how language shapes minds, and focuses on the relationship between similes, truth and lies.

Many novels are about uncovering what is true, but Christopher's quest takes the idea to a deeper level, and even though we know this narrator is almost pathologically truthful, his condition means his observations sometimes miss the real truth of a situation.

There is plenty of humour, and it usually arises from Christopher's naive misunderstandings of situations and the conflict between his lack of embarrassment and desire to be unnoticed by unfamiliar people.

Logic and Truth
Christopher loves maths because it is safe, straightforward and has a definite answer, unlike life. He's also good at explaining some aspects, ending an explanation of calculating primes with "Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away".

His apparent deviations from logic are justified with ingenious logic. For example, having favourite and hated colours reduces choice and thus stress, counteracting the effect of his inability to filter or prioritise: he notices (and remembers) every detail of everything, and can rewind it at will, whereas other people's brains are filled with imaginary stuff. He is a little like his hero Sherlock Holmes, who is quoted saying "The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance observes". Similarly, defining a good or bad day on the basis of how many red or yellow cars is no more illogical than an office-bound person's mood being dictated by the weather.

All of this means animals are a better bet than humans: "I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking - it has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk". People are more of a mystery: when having a conversation, people look at him to understand what he's thinking, but Christopher can't do likewise. For him "it's like being in a room with a one-way mirror in a spy film". Love is even more unfathomable: "Loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth, and Father [does lots of things for me]... which means that he loves me".

I reread this during a rather stressful journey, including the passages when Christopher is making a stressful journey. It helped me empathise with him - to the extent that it exacerbated my own stress!

It's worth comparing this with Iris Murdoch's The Word Child (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), whose main character has tacit Asperger's tendencies, and The Housekeeper and the Professor (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which is also about finding number patterns in everyday life, and involves a protagonist whose brain does not work like other people's.
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Comments (showing 1-39 of 39) (39 new)

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Shawn Sorensen 'breathless...' I like your use of the word for this review.

Cecily When I reread it, I'll see if I think it's still valid. ;-)

Sunny In Wonderland Wow! That sounds really GOOD! Great review!

Cecily Shawn, having finished rereading it, I think "breathless" still applies.

Thanks, Sunny. It's a YA book, so a pretty quick read, but certainly an enlightening and enjoyable one too. It is also quite funny, which is not something reflected very well in my review. Maybe I'll have to amend it again.

Jonathan Great review. I have heard lots of interesting things about this book and that made me more determined to get into it some time soon.

Cecily Thanks. It really doesn't take long to get into, or even finish, because it was written for the YA market. (After its initial success, it was reissued and remarketed for an adult audience.)

Jonathan Well certainly any great novel should be applicable for all ages I believe. That is the great success of movie companies like Pixar - they created animated art that was for all people.

Cecily Very true. And far more fail than succeed, imo.

Jonathan Oh of course. But at least they tried to create something great rather than settled for an ordinary piece of work as some authors do.

Cecily (I meant novels, films... all art, really, not just Pixar.)

Jonathan I meant to take it as that whoops... I meant to indicate that at least where the majority fail they try to create great novels. My fault...

midnightfaerie Did you know in an interview with the author, the author stated he was irritated by the use of this book as a tool for Asperger's Syndrome info? He never meant for it to be that, and he wasn't writing the character with Asperger's Syndrome at all, only some sort of syndrome that wasn't specifically named. Nowhere in the book it actually says Asperger's Syndrome. I found that interesting. I loved this book!

Cecily Yes, I realise that, and some people with the condition, or who have family members with it, dislike aspects of his portrayal - but there are others who say it's uncanny how realistic it is.

Ultimately, the label is a useful shorthand, but whether it's strictly true may not matter very much: it's a story told by an outsider. The nature of his difference is fundamental to the story and how it is told, and yet it would be entirely possible to write a version in the voice of someone with Down's Syndrome, short-term memory problems or all sorts of other conditions.

Jonathan Well thanks to your reminder of a review I picked it up from my university library to join my multiple other books to read over the next three weeks of holidays.

message 15: by Autumn (new) - added it

Autumn Brady I've wanted to read this for a long time. I've heard very few bad things about it. Working with special needs students this will be right up my alley ( with the comments- I wonder what I will think of it and the boy's portrayal?). Thanks for the interesting and great review!

Cecily I look forward to reading your review if or when you do read it, Autumn.

Donna Parker Asperger's Syndrome is not the same thing as High-Functioning Autism although they are both on the Autism Spectrum.

message 18: by Cecily (last edited Sep 06, 2013 03:00AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily Thanks, Donna. Until now, I thought thought Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism were more or less the same, and certainly the two terms are bandied about as if they're interchangeable.

Looking it up now, it seems there are still some grey areas, but for those who don't want to look it up themselves, the consensus clusters around the idea that those with Asperger's develop language fairly normally as toddlers, whereas those with HFA don't (even if they acquire langage later).

The news earlier this year (or last year) that psychiatrists wanted to drop the Asperger's label in favour of an autism-related diagnosis may lead to further confusion.

I've amended my review a little. However, I don't think Christopher's language acquisition is mentioned, so I've left it vague.

Sunny In Wonderland The library just pulled this off the shelf for me. It was your comments about the math puzzles in the book that pushed me over the edge... :)

Cecily I hope I haven't overstated the maths puzzle element and that you enjoy it. It's quite a quick read.

message 21: by Megan (new) - added it

Megan I keep seeing this one at the book store at school and I really want to read it especially after reading your review and seeing that the main character likes Sherlock Holmes!

message 22: by K.D. (new) - rated it 3 stars

K.D. Absolutely I loved this book too, Cecily. :)

Cecily K.D. wrote: "I loved this book too, Cecily. :)"

"Loved" but only gave it 3*?

Michael Missed your captivating review (predated our GR friendship). I liked how you pull out the combination of playfulness and depth in the book. Hope you go on to try his A Spot of Bother and The Red House.

Lynda Fantastic read. Brilliant use of the truly unreliable or should it be differently reliable narrator. Haddon is sick yo death of talking about this book and very much views it as an exploration of essential uniqueness rather than a masterclass on autism. Saw the play premiered in the West End at the end of last summer and the beauty and strangeness of Christopher's vision emerges strongly in the dramatic form. Paradoxically a play about emotional deficits is extremely emotional to experience


Cecily Michael, I have a copy of A Spot of Bother, but haven't got round to reading it yet. Very different from this, I think (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).

Lynda, I saw the stage version as well. It was utterly stunning wasn't it? And very emotional.

Derek (Guilty of thoughtcrime) 'He also hates metaphors (even "the word metaphor is a metaphor", meaning "carrying something from one place to another"), but he doesn't mind similes because they are not untrue.'

I wish I'd remembered this when we were discussing Embassytown!

message 28: by Ruth (new) - added it

Ruth Great review, thank you. I especially appreciate the book suggestions at the end of your review. I have a half dozen Murdoch's but not those, damn! I will keep an eye out for them at the second hand shop when next in the States.

Eleni as usual I do like seeing what you've read as we have widely ranging yet different readings over the years.... this one though is one that I too have read and loved.....

message 30: by Cecily (last edited Sep 06, 2013 11:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily I'm glad to be of some small service, Ruth.

Derek, if you wish you'd remembered that when we discussed Embassytown, just think how annoyed I am not to link up comments in my own reviews (something I'm about to rectify)!

message 31: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Interesting! Your description of "patterns" and favorite colours also made me think a bit of OCD.

Thanks for the thought-provoking review and the references, Cecily. Now I must bounce this book up higher on my list... btw, people have been asking to read Iron Council--how do you feel about another Mieville?

I'm about to start it; let's hope it's better than The Scar. :)

message 32: by J. (new) - rated it 5 stars

J. Keck A world that is very foreign to everyone not familiar with the autistic individual. A well done work.

Derek (Guilty of thoughtcrime) Traveller wrote: "Interesting! Your description of "patterns" and favorite colours also made me think a bit of OCD."

There's a lot of that in many autistics. Not always completely "compulsive", but often "obsessive"

Steve Wonderfully done, Cecily! I wonder how this one compares with that new Japanese one along similar lines. David Mitchell wrote the intro, which makes me curious. Anyhow, back to my main point: you captured this one perfectly -- his reasoning, his preferences, and his problems connecting.

Cecily Good question, Steve. The Mitchell translation sounds fascinating, but it's a very different approach to the subject. (For anyone unsure of what we're talking about: The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism.)

message 36: by Zanna (new)

Zanna Oh this is such a thorough and satisfying review - you're the first person who's made me want to read this

Cecily Thanks, Zanna. I hope you enjoy it in due course.

It is a fascinating book, and although at one level it's an easy read, it's more worthwhile not to rush it too much.

message 38: by Zanna (new)

Zanna :-) often the case

message 39: by Thomas (last edited Nov 30, 2014 01:43PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Thomas Fennell Thank you Cecily for writing such a great review of the novel. Your thoughts are very similar to mine and you did a superb job of describing the themes, symbols, and motifs of this novel.
You are so right when you say "Christopher loves maths because it is safe, straightforward and has a definite answer, unlike life." I think that those problems and puzzles help him achieve a sense of security, like when he thinks of the Conway’s Soldiers riddle when his thoughts become jumbled in the crowded train station.
Also I am happy you brought the motif of animals up because I didn't see that in anyone else's review. You can tell throughout the novel that he finds comfort in animals that he cannot share with other people. It shows up with his rat Toby, his dad taking him to the zoo, and the dog his father gives him.
Great Review!

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