This story – and I call it a story rather than a novel – is not about plot or characters or the description of the events. It is about trying to understand what it’s like to be inside the head of a teenage boy, Christopher, who is brilliantly intelligent and also autistic. The story is written as Christopher’s own journal where he chronicles the events during a pivotal month of his life, and we read in his first-person narrative about what he sees, feels, and thinks within his world, which is confined by the suffocating limitations of his autism. But, Christopher does not perceive those limitations – they are just part of his life and for him they are normal. This is a fascinating and eye-opening peek into Christopher’s world.
When I started reading the story, I thought that it might actually be what it presents as – the actual writing of an autistic teenager, or perhaps an adult remembering events from his earlier life. Mr. Haddon captures the thought process of the autistic boy, and the cadence of his life, remarkably well. Only when I started reading some secondary material about the author and the book did I learn that the author is neither autistic nor the father of an autistic child. It’s remarkable that he captured Christopher’s thoughts and emotions so well. I am the father of a child with a similar kind of learning disability and I can say that I felt I was reliving some of my son’s childhood while reading this story.
The book, therefore, accomplishes the goal of allowing (or forcing) the reader to live through Christopher’s eyes and to live his life and try to understand what and how he thinks. For that accomplishment, Mr. Haddon should be commended. Every teacher and every person who may have interaction with children who deal with these kinds of developmental issues should read this book. It will help with understanding and acceptance. It is a worth while book.
What it is not is a novel, or a story that, on its own has much merit (aside from the unique perspective it provides). The reader gets that perspective in the first fifty or so pages. The rest of the book is repetition (which is itself an insight into the autistic experience). The writing style becomes monotonous after a while, and although there is a brief glimpse of the relationship between Christopher’s mother and father (and how he contributed to their issues), the story is a one-trick pony. Life is difficult for Christopher, and he deals with it in his own unique way. Once that point is hammered home, the rest of the read is just a struggle to get to the end. This is not a fun read. It’s difficult. It’s uncomfortable. That’s the point, but that’s the only point. Take your medicine and be happy that you get better, while Christopher remains trapped inside his head. Even if Christopher can excel at math and may someday attend university and, as he hopes, become a scientist, he will always be confined to the box inside his head. We can escape back into our own lives with a slight appreciation of how good it is to be “normal.”
I’ll continue for those interested, but the above is all you really need to know.
The title of the book refers to the beginning of the story, when Christopher is wandering his neighborhood late at night and finds the dead body of a neighbor’s dog, impaled by a pitch fork. Christopher is then arrested and taken to the police station after he hits the cop who shows up and touches Christopher (Christopher does not like to be touched). You have to wonder what cop hauls off an obviously mentally disabled teenager from a suburban neighborhood without making any effort to find a parent. It makes no sense, but it is an easy way for us to learn about how Christopher handles the unusual circumstances. We also get to meet his father and then when he gets home Christopher decides that it is important for him to solve the mystery of who killed the dog. At the suggestion of a teacher, Christopher begins writing down the story of his detective work, which is the story we are reading.
Christopher is a fan of Sherlock Holmes, because Holmes, like him, sees every small detail in the world. Christopher has a photographic memory, which is hard for him because it results in sensory overload. He is not capable of just seeing the world, he has to see, catalogue, and remember every detail that he sees, and sometimes that is overwhelming for him.
So, Christopher interviews the neighbors as he tries to solve the mystery, which gives us some brief snippets of interaction with the neighbors, although not enough for us to really get to know those characters. His father is unhappy with him and tells him to stop getting into other people’s business, which Christopher doesn’t understand because he hears and processes only literal meanings of words and these people have no “business” that Christopher is “getting into.” (The father should know better by this time in his life.)
Eventually, Christopher learns things about his father and his mother that had been kept from him as a child, and he has an adventure when he runs away from home and has to navigate his way through what we (the readers) would view as everyday life, but to Christopher is like exploring an unknown and never explored universe. We find out that Christopher’s mum and dad have a hard time dealing with each other when Christopher is involved, and that life for the family is hard. Then the book is over. There is no “point” to the story aside from trying to understand Christopher’s world, and perhaps to appreciate a bit how hard he makes life on those around him.
The author gives us some wonderful writing, but mostly we’re just “listening” to Christopher’s thoughts. For example, Christopher recalls his parents: “That was because they had lots of arguments and sometimes they hated each other.” Yes, that’s the way this kid would think – if you say “I hate you” then you hate them. There is no ambiguity is Christopher’s world. When Christopher goes into meltdown mode, he describes it as: “I had no memories for a short while. I know it was a short while because I checked my watch afterward. It was like someone had switched me off and then switched me on again. And when they switched me on again I was sitting on the carpet with my back against the wall and there was blood on my right hand and the side of my head was hurting.”
When Christopher goes to live with his mom, but has no clothes packed, he describes a shopping trip as: “Then she said we had to go and buy some clothes for me to wear and some pajamas and a toothbrush and a flannel. So we went out of the flat and we walked to the main road, which was Hill Lane, which was the A4088, and it was really crowded and we caught a number 266 bus to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. Except there were too many people in John Lewis and I was frightened and I lay down on the floor next to the wristwatches and I screamed and Mother had to take me home in a taxi.” This is how he thinks of it – nothing dramatic – just something that happened in his world.
These are great insights, but they don’t really make a great story if you’re looking for action, plot, character development, etc. But that’s not what this book is about. Go read it, then go hug your child and give thanks that he or she gets into minor scuffles at school and yells at you about not wanting to wear their coat. Things could be way worse.