Rachel Harden on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
THERE IS nothing more off-putting about a book than being told "you ought to
read it". Yet The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of those
"oughts", not only because it is a well-written tale with a good storyline, but
also because it opens the reader’s eyes to the world of children with special
needs and those who have to live with them.
I confess to being put off the book at first by the "oughts" of all those
who had read it before me. But, spurred on after my two teenage daughters could
not put it down, I entered the life of Christopher Boone, brilliant at maths,
but hampered by behavioural problems.
He knows all the countries in the world, with their capital cities, and
every prime number up to 7507. He is fascinated by the workings of numbers, and
regularly retreats into some mathematical conundrum, sharing with readers (if
interested) how it can be solved. The Monty Hall Problem, for example, based on
options available to a contestant in quiz show, is entertainingly explained by
Christopher, and leaves non-mathematicians with a semblance of understanding.
The author, Mark Haddon, uses Christopher’s love of maths throughout the
book to illustrate his need to "work out" life, which, of course, is not
possible. Christopher uses a mathematical logic to monitor his own behaviour.
At one point, he writes a list of his own behavioural problems, and then
comments on them: "Saying things that other people think are rude. People say
you always have to tell the truth but they do not mean this. You are not
allowed to tell people if they smell funny or if a grown-up has done a fart."
He also questions the logic of signs that we take for granted: "Keep off the
grass" (which bit exactly?), "Keep quiet" (for how long?). He explains how he
judges a "good" or "black" day on how many cars of a particular colour he
passes on the way to school.
The easy mistake to make about this book is that it might be
autobiographical: it reads as such, but it is not. The author has researched
well the world of a child, almost adult, with special needs. The inherent
problems in such a world are combined with a clever narrative and a strong
We meet a family torn apart by living with a behavioural-problem child. It
is the dog of the title that starts off the story, as Christopher comes across
him one night, dead. He then sets about trying to unravel the mystery of who
killed the dog, introducing characters in his life, who all play a part in the
The author uses the various characters to illustrate the different reactions
to someone like Christopher. There is the trained professional: Siobhan, his
teacher, who provides a vital thread of stability in his life, appearing in
almost every chapter, yet without a big part.
Then there are the neighbours Christopher talks to in the course of his
"investigation": kind Mrs Alexander, who wants to mother him (yet is a little
uncertain); exasperated Mrs Shears (owner of the dead dog), who for reasons
that become apparent later has little patience; and others who soon shut the
door. Elsewhere is a less-than-sympathetic policeman and a friend of
Christopher’s father, who asks him to do clever maths problems like a circus
Central among all these relationships is that of father and son. Through
Christopher’s eyes, we see the utter frustration of a man dealing on his own
with a boy who will put his head in his hands and moan when life gets
complicated. We learn early on that his mother is no longer around.
It is an amusing narrative, but it does not provoke laughter at the subject.
For anyone acquainted with such a world, there can be a question of
exploitation. Some have asked what right an author has to make literary capital
out of a group of people who are unlikely to answer for themselves. Some even
feel that the author is using his main character’s problems as a gimmick.
One reviewer with a handicapped brother spoke of the anger she felt when
watching Dustin Hoffman as an autistic character in the 1988 film Rain Man. It
was painful for her to watch, exposed on the screen, difficulties similar to
those of her family. She sympathised with readers who struggled with this book
for similar reasons, although it had not upset her so deeply.
She concluded, however, that good books are often good because they raise
issues with which we are uncomfortable. The book has also been widely praised
for providing a rare and sympathetic glimpse into the world of people like
The book has already won three literary awards, two in the children’s
category. But do not make the mistake of thinking that this is a children’s
book. The author seems to have put together a narrative that can be read on a
number of levels: children and adults will enjoy different aspects of it.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
is published by Vintage at £6.99 ((CT Bookshop £6.30); 0-099-45025-9).
How does Christopher view and understand his condition?
How does the way in which the book is written (prime-numbered chapters,
diagrams, maps, and so on) help the reader to gain insight into Christopher’s
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was published both as a
children’s book and as a novel for adults. How might the two groups read it
In an interview in The Observer, the author explains that he is an "atheist
in a very religious mould". Religion, he says, gives people answers and
celebrates mystery: "Science and literature do this for me." Would Christopher
agree with his creator? Where in the book might we see such views coming
Why is it important for Christopher to discover who murdered the dog,
Wellington? Did you guess the murderer?
"And Father said, ‘I love you very much, Christopher’" (page 109). What sort
of relationship does Christopher have with his parents? How can they show love
when he hates being touched as much as he does?
"Everything I have written here is true" (page 25). How does Christopher
cope with other people’s lies?
Next month's title
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 September, we will print
extra information about the next book. This is The Lindisfarne Icon by
Sr Helen Julian CSF. It is published by BRF at £6.99 (
Helen Julian CSF is an Anglican Franciscan sister. Currently she
is Minister Provincial of the European Province of her order, and is based at
St Francis Convent, Compton Durville, Somerset. She writes regularly for the
Bible Reading Fellowship’s New Daylight Bible-reading notes. A previous book,
Living the Gospel: The spirituality of St Francis and St Clare, is also
published by BRF.
For hundreds of years, people have made their way on pilgrimage to
the Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral.
In The Lindisfarne Icon, Sr Helen Julian tells how a
seventh-century monk and bishop, who lived in as much solitude as he could,
became a popular and influential saint. She looks at how Cuthbert’s gifts of
prophecy, healing, evangelism and wise counsel, and his commitment to a life of
prayer, are vital for spiritual growth in the 21st century.
Books for the next two months:
October: Waterland by Graham Swift
November: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë