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Book Review

An autistic mind unleashed

By JOHN FREEMAN
Published September 2, 2003

Christopher Boone has many likes and dislikes. The autistic narrator of Mark Haddon's quirky debut novel hates brown and yellow, but red is okay. Physical contact repulses him, but doing math makes him calm and tingly on the inside. Christopher has gotten so good at it that he can multiply numbers such as 251 and 864 in his head, and he knows every prime number up to 7,057.

Unless you're an accountant, however, these skills aren't practical in everyday life, a dilemma that animates The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, an oddly likable tale given that from the beginning it's quite easy to see where Haddon is taking us.

Like many autistics, Christopher's goal each day is to preserve order in his routine. So when he discovers that his neighbor's dog has been murdered with a garden tool, this unlikely hero, who is initially blamed for the crime, immediately sets out to uncover what exactly happened, just as would his favorite literary hero, Sherlock Holmes.

Told in Christopher's stiff, almost robotic voice,The Curious Incident depicts how investigating this petty crime forces our hero to participate in the world around him, a world whose chaos he has feared his entire life. And so, though Christopher doesn't immediately solve who killed the dog, he does uncover some unsavory details about his father's emotional life.

Haddon has worked with autistic children and written children's books. As a result, The Curious Incident has a studied, yet whimsical quality. Christopher is forever explaining his inner life. He tells us about his lack of humor and describes the way his fabulous memory works:

"My memory is like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things, like the conversations I have written down in this book, and what people were wearing, and what they smelled like, because my memory has a smelltrack which is like a soundtrack."

Spliced into the narrative, these snippets occasionally feel like a bit of Autism 101. More effective, though, are the little drawings and diagrams that Christopher includes for our benefit. There's a picture of a fairy and a diagram of a mathematical quandary. Christopher even sketches a floor plan for a London train station so that we can picture his travels. Although they seem a bit strange, these diagrams are Christopher's touching and sincere way of making the reader see the world as he does. Over time, they sink in, and so when Christopher must slowly let his guard down, we feel his nervousness and know his pain.

It's a touching evolution, one that Haddon scripts with tenderness and care. The book came out quietly in July, but after the Today show picked it for its book club, Doubleday released a new edition.

In The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, Haddon has crafted a tale full of cheeky surprises and tender humor. It's a book that provides a unique window into the mind of a boy who thinks a little differently and, like many kids his age, doesn't quite know how to feel.

- Reviewer John Freeman is a writer in New York.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by Mark Haddon, Doubleday, $22.95, 226 pages.

[Last modified August 29, 2003, 14:06:24]


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