A novel about a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome wins prestigious prizes for adult novel, children’s novel, and teen novel, becomes a hit play, and never once mentions Asperger’s Syndrome anywhere in the text.
Likely because it’s not about Asperger’s Syndrome. Not really.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was first published in the United Kingdom in 2003. It won several awards, including the Whitbread Award for best novel of the year in the UK. It also made the long list for the Man Booker Award. Two years ago, Haddon adapted the story for the stage, and it won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play.
The story’s main character is 15-year-old Christopher Boone, who lives with his father in Swindon, not far from London in southern England. His mother had earlier died from a heart condition. Because of his condition, Christopher attends a special-needs school. He is absolutely brilliant at mathematics, what the British call “maths,” and has in-depth knowledge of astronomy and physics. He also doesn’t like the colors yellow and brown, and seeing several yellow cars means he will have a bad day. Red, however, is different, and seeing several red cars in traffic means he will have a very good day. He also can’t bare to be touched.
Christopher begins to write the account we’re reading because someone has killed a neighbor’s dog. He found the dog’s body; the neighbor accused him and called the police. Because he likes the puzzles presented by Sherlock Holmes stories, Christopher decides he will investigate the dog’s killing and determine who did it.
We watch how Christopher’s mind works as he investigates, and Haddon has gotten himself inside the head of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. The boy is very literal-minded, has trouble with nonverbal communication, gets himself sidetracked by mathematical and scientific considerations, and is often terrified of the most common things, including a change in circumstances. And virtually all of Christopher’s circumstances are about to change.
Christopher’s story becomes our story, about the brokenness in our lives and the brokenness of families. It’s a coming-of-age story, but at the same time is far more than that; this the reason why the novel has won so many different kinds of awards (although the occasional strong language and some situations make the work problematical for children; I’m not sure why it would have won an award for children’s fiction, because it is not a children’s story.)
Haddon is the author of several novels and young adult novels, including A Spot of Bother (2007) and The Red House (2013). He blogs under his own name.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a remarkable book and one fine novel.
Top photograph by Sabine Sauermaul via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.