Christopher Boone is 15. He knows “all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,507”. He lives in Swindon with his father and Toby, his pet rat. He abhors all yellow and brown things, thinks he would make a good astronaut, and has never been further than the end of the road on his own until his discovery of the “murder” of his neighbour’s dog turns him into an amateur detective.
Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome, though this is never specified. Mark Haddon’s study of the condition is superbly realised, but this is not simply a novel about disability. Haddon, rather like Daniel Keyes in his 1959 classic Flowers for Algernon , uses his narrator’s innocence as a means of commenting on the emotional and moral confusion in the lives of the adults around him. Christopher sees everything, remembers everything, but cannot prioritise – cannot sift out what most of us regard as important. On the day he is told his mother is dead, he records his Scrabble score, and notes that supper was spaghetti with tomato sauce. But he isn’t callous or indifferent. He can cope with facts, with concrete detail; emotions confuse and alarm him.
Autistic people are not easy subjects for novelists. Their interests are prescribed, their experiences static, their interaction with others limited. Haddon ingeniously uses Christopher’s admiration for Sherlock Holmes to lead him out of this stasis, not to effect some miraculous “cure”, but so that a story can happen. Detective fiction, relying on the accumulation of material facts, is the only fiction that makes sense to Christopher. As he collects facts relating to the death of the dog, he unwittingly pieces together a jigsaw that reveals to the reader the lies, grief and evasions of his parents’ lives.
There is, of course, a great novelistic tradition of children as observers of the darker side of adult behaviour – What Maisie Knew , To Kill a Mockingbird . But The Curious Incident is no out-of-Eden fable. The pathos of Christopher’s condition is that he can never understand the havoc his very existence has wreaked in the lives of those around him, however many facts he uncovers. I don’t want to give the story away, but the scene in which he reads his mother’s letters is one of the most affecting things I’ve read in years.
But there is comfort as well as sorrow. Christopher’s innocence makes him vulnerable, but it protects him too. At the end, when order is restored, we see that he is a touchstone for adult behaviour. Those concerned with his welfare have to learn to temper their emotional needs round his autistic inability to compromise.
“This will not be a funny book,” says Christopher. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” But it is a funny book, as well as a sad one. Christopher’s compulsive noting of mundane facts provides comedy reminiscent of the best of Adrian Mole, especially in his dealings with the police and his special-needs classmates. And Haddon’s inclusion of diagrams, timetables, maps, even maths problems, extends the normal scope of novel-writing and demonstrates the rich idiosyncrasies of the autistic brain. The Curious Incident is published simultaneously for adults and older children; despite its clarity and simplicity, it operates on several levels. I’d love to know what a reader with Asperger’s thinks of this book. I think it’s brilliant.