Mark Haddon’s award-winning mystery novel from 2003 is set in Swindon, but the title comes from a Sherlock Holmes story that takes place in Dartmoor. Mrs Shears’ poodle is dead, the perpetrator was known to it and the “curious incident” was the fact that the dog didn’t bark. It’s a riddle solved by Holmes in 1892 (to discover who stole Silver Blaze, the fancy racehorse) and again, a hundred years later, by Christopher Boone.
Sherlock and Christopher have much in common – logical minds, an awareness of their own intelligence, infallible memories and a certain otherness that makes emotional interaction a challenge. We know that reading gives us glimpses of different lives, opposite viewpoints, things that we need to learn and experience through watching them with someone else’s eyes. Reading takes us outside our immediate frame of reference and says, “here is a concept you may not have considered before, a way of living you might not know. Come and see how this plays out.” It’s incredibly important, I think, that this book won the awards it did and received such high praise. Writing about a disability through the eyes of the disabled person isn’t easy, especially when that person also happens to be 15.
But Haddon manages that rare thing: to write about what he, personally, doesn’t know. There’s no explicit detail on Christopher’s diagnosis: in fact, there’s no mention of Asperger’s in the novel at all. In one interview Haddon mentions he gave Christopher “…kind of nine or 10 rules that he would live his life by, and then I didn’t read any more”. He shows rather than tells us how his protagonist’s mind works, thus avoiding having him labelled. “I have to say honestly that I did more research about the London Underground and the inside of Swindon railway station, where some of the novel takes place, than I did about Asperger’s syndrome,” he said. “I didn’t read any more about it because I think there is no typical person who has Asperger’s syndrome, and they’re as large and diverse a group of people as any other group in society.” And, as Christopher himself points out, “Everyone has learning difficulties, because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult.”
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a great book in so many ways, but it’s especially interesting as far as this project’s concerned. Christopher’s observations build a picture of life in Swindon, as well as offering glimpses into a quintessentially British home: his mum reading Princess Diana’s biography, for example, or watching David Attenborough documentaries. Christopher’s life as we see it revolves around places that are familiar to him: home, his street, his school, the bus, the shop – “I have seen almost everything in it beforehand and all I have to do is to look at the things that have changed or moved,” he says.
Ed, Christopher’s dad, on the other hand, describes Swindon as “the arsehole of the world”, and he’s in good company. Douglas Adams, for instance, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once claimed that there was nowhere on earth more inimical to human life than Swindon bus station. It’s sad that too often people lambast certain places – as too industrial, as ugly, as miserable, suggesting that no one who lives there actually chooses to. One of my friends rents a flat in the town and it’s great: steep hills, nice pubs, a theatre with hot-pink seats, a magic roundabout and not too many people. It’s unpretentious – not a cereal café in sight, no pop-ups or smarmy concept shops. And even better, it’s sandwiched between the North Wessex Downs and the Cotswolds. Christopher feels largely safe and comfortable here. He can do his Maths A-Level in the town and he watches the stars at night – his total incomprehension of geographical stereotypes or bias means he presents an unadulterated worldview that’s refreshing in its innocence. Christopher is acutely aware of his surroundings, but not what the people and actions within them signify.
His decision to write a murder mystery novel, centred around the dog’s death, sees him moving away from science and maths books to create his own, hopefully solvable puzzle. Writing can be an immensely isolating experience, but Christopher’s determination means he’s forced to leave the safety of familiar surroundings to find the truth. He knocks on the doors of neighbours he’s seen but never interacted with, speaks to new people, and eventually goes to London –a great writhing maze of unfamiliarity – alone. It’s an inspirational story and a vital one too, creating visibility where it’s most needed.
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