Friday, July 31, 2009

Holiday reading: 'The Curious Incident ...'

Holiday reading this year was Mark Haddon's 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time', which had long been on my to-read list following great reviews, recommendations from friends and general fuss.

I don't want to give away too much of the story to those few of you who have not yet read it, as unexpected developments are among the book's strengths, giving it a suspense plot that, for the most part, keeps you reading so that you take in the more important emotional plot. Suffice to say that it is a murder mystery in which the victim is a dog but the real story is less that of deceased canine Wellington and more that of narrator Christopher. The solving of the Whodunnit does not simply answer one challenge but launches us into another.

I could not read this book as anything other than what I am: the parent of a boy who, like teenager Christopher, has Asperger syndromw. I saw much of Joe's outlook on life in Christopher's: his structures of thinking, his bewilderment at the strange ways in which neurotypicals speak, his desire to shut out the world and protect himself from mental overload, his use of reasoning and rules to work through confusing and unfamiliar situations. But there were other aspects which did not seem like Joe at all. I had to remind myself that this is OK, that this is not a handbook about Asperger syndrome (in fact, it does not even mention the term), nor does it claim to describe or speak for aspies in general. It is a novel about Christopher.

At times I feared for Christopher being portrayed as a circus freak, or an object of mirth, or a danger to himself and those around him. Or that he might reinforce some unhelpful stereoptypes about aspies - for example, that they are incapable of lying or of understanding jokes. I have not read responses by aspies to the book, and it would not surprise me to find criticism alongside praise. Personally, I thought that 'The Curious Incident ...' just about managed to stay on the right side of the line and to re-balance itself just when I worried that it might tip over.

The book shows the joys and challenges that life presents to a teenager with Asperger's. It also shows powerfully how hard it is to be a parent, and how easy it is to do or say the wrong thing. It made my feel simultaneously sympathetic to Christopher's parents, angry with them for their mistakes, and rather chuffed that I'm doing a better job of it.

What struck me most, though, were the similarities of Christopher's thinking not just to Joe's but to my own. I sometimes share Christopher's frustration at the inaccurate and confusing ways in which people talk, his desire to curb his own runaway thinking, and his fanaticism for maths, science and the natural world. Asperger's syndrome is not so much a whole different way of thinking, but a condition in which ways of thinking that occur occasionally in most of us are hard-wired in the aspie.

'The Curious Incident ...' will probably be thought-provoking for people with Asperger's in their life. It will almost certainly be enlightening for those without. But it is a novel, not a textbook, and as it goes, a pretty good read: a murder mystery with engaging, believable characters, and everyday matters observed keenly and made interesting.

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