The Short Version: Christopher, a young autistic boy, discovers his neighbor’s dog stabbed dead with a garden fork. He sets out to discover who killed the beast and it ends up becoming the biggest adventure of his young life. He travels to London, discovers a secret about his parents, solves the mystery, and writes it all down as a story in the end.
The Review: I’m now somewhat sad that I didn’t catch the National Theatre stage adaptation of this novel when I was in London. I know it’s playing on NTLive but I think I’ve missed that and, despite how lovely it is, NTLive never quite captures the spirit of the thing. But I’d be curious to see how this quirky novel played out onstage.
Our narrator, Christopher, is “on the spectrum” – autistic, to put it simply. He’s good with math, has trouble with physical contact and the colors brown & yellow, and is developmentally a few steps behind his age-group peers. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t smart or capable. It’s simultaneously harrowing and exhilarating to experience the world through his eyes: the harrowing part comes from the discomfort and the inevitable comprehension gap in reading it as an ordinary adult while the exhilarating part comes from seeing the world in an entirely new way and getting to experience certain things ‘for the first time’ again.
The maths that are done, for example, blew my mind. I used to be relatively adept at higher mathematics but I reached a breaking point around Pre-Calc II and since coasting through my liberal arts education’s single math credit requirement, I’ve had to do very little beyond basic trig. So maybe it’s just that I’m a bit more than “a little out of practice” but man, some of the discussion of higher mathematics that Christopher rattles off (with the same deadpan droll tone as everything else) made my head spin. It is, of course, just Haddon’s way of showing the reader how differently Christopher sees the world – but I’ll be damned: it worked.
On the whole, the tone of the book worked. I was, I’ll again admit, genuinely surprised by this. On the spectrum characters (Lisbeth Salander being the prime example) are all the rage these days but rarely do they come off as realistic individuals. They come off, instead, as an ordinary person’s interpretation of an autistic or otherwise-developmentally-challenged individual. Writers, artists, etc are meant to be able to approximate experiences in order to create – that’s what we do, I know that – but so often the creation feels artificial in situations like this. So Haddon’s success at creating Christopher and his world must be acknowledged. The slight discomfort you feel while reading this novel – something I’ve never felt previously when with a character like Christopher (including Lisbeth) – felt so right to me: I was reading about the experience of someone who was wired in a fundamentally different way and that’s bound to shake up the neurons a bit.
The novel, however, doesn’t quite live up to its excellent main character. I was genuinely hoping for a mystery about this dead dog and adding Christopher to the pantheon of quirky detectives who seem to populate my Crime/Mystery shelves. But the dog quickly takes something of a backseat to a family mystery, one that you’re not really properly prepared for by the back cover or really anything written publicity-wise about the book. As much as this is a novel about being autistic, it’s also a novel about the toll it can take to raise an autistic child – and that made me perhaps more uncomfortable (uncomfortable in a squirming way instead of in a learning way, if you will) than anything else. Watching adults act horribly – but watching these actions through the eyes of a sweet and well-meaning young man makes me, as someone who’s increasingly lumped in with adults instead of young people, feel awful. About humanity. Most of the adults in this novel look terrible by the end of it. Well… that’s, perhaps, a little harsh – Siobhan is consistently a lovely, mothering figure and Christopher’s father, for example, is really just struggling and his few lapses come from simply being driven to the end of his rope – but it’s true nonetheless. People are complicated and often awful – but it’s the rest of the time, the good moments, the moments of trying to be better, that give humanity some redemption. There’s a scene nearly at the end of the novel where – and I won’t spoil it, it’s too sweet to spoil – Christopher and his father have an interaction that brought tears to my eyes. Not because of Christopher, but because of his father. Seeing what his father was doing and how Christopher was struggling to comprehend it… that allowed me some faith in humanity, too.
I’m a little surprised, to be honest, that this book is being marketed (in the UK, at least) to children – or, well, 12+. I think it’s a good thing, as it’ll hopefully spur kids to be more accepting and understanding of their peers who struggle in one way or another, but it’s also a really heavy book. The language is unedited and Christopher’s dry reportage of every little event (cutely curtailed by Siobhan, who is Christopher’s ‘editor’ on this story) makes this an unflinching look at the facts of domesticity. Divorce, lying, violence, alcohol… Christopher gets away from it by doing math problems in his head, moaning, humming, listening to loud static on the radio – and we look at that as a developmental retardation. But we try not to get away from those issues too, by hiding them or ignoring them with all kinds of different things. Music, drugs, drinking, reading, walking, sports… that list goes on. We consider those activities as “correct” and Christopher’s as “incorrect” because of the structures of society – but I’d argue that the result we’re all looking for is the same and however we get there, it’s something fundamental to all of us.
Rating: 4 out of 5. In the end, the book feels a little slight and a little tonally out-of-balance. But Christopher is a terrifically imagined narrator and the book is worth reading simply for the window it opens onto the world of autism. There is humor but also quite a bit of sadness. Just don’t go in expecting a quirky, rollicking mystery – instead, let it just take you where it will.