I spied The Curious Incident on the sale shelf at my local library’s bookshop (aren’t those the best inventions?) and picked it up, not for me, but for a friend. (The same one who gave me The Brothers K and Shantaram. He’s also just given me The Beach, which is, in his words, “trippy”. In other words, he reads decent literature.) Without knowing anything about it, I proudly delivered my find, and a week later he called to tell me he’d finished, it was overwhelmingly sad, and that I needed to read it right now so we could talk about it.
So I dropped what I was reading and picked up the story of fifteen year old Christopher, an English boy with autism who discovers the neighbor’s dog murdered in the garden next door, pierced straight through with a gardening fork. Falsely accused of the killing, Christopher sets out to prove his innocence and solve the murder, and along the way he discovers some painful and shocking truths about his family.
Listening to Christopher narrate his story is fascinating and heartbreaking all at the same time. Without giving anything away, Christopher discovers some things that children should never have to know, and listening to him process and analyze it is achingly painful. You can almost feel him retreating in to himself, and it’s a testament to Haddon’s excellent writing that you can hear the subtle flatness in his voice as he tells those sections of the story. There’s a scene where he’s on the train to London, hiding from the police on a luggage rack behind a curtain, tucked up in to a little ball on the middle shelf, next to suitcases and overnight bags, trying to feel safe. He’s describing what’s happening and what his mind is telling him, and I wanted so badly to crawl in there with him and hold him, except that Christopher doesn’t like to be touched, so that would have only distressed him further. I felt utterly helpless in that moment (and not a little ridiculous; Christopher is, after all, a fictional character).
Without question, the feeling I had when I finished this book was sadness. Not the kind of sadness one feels when Beth dies in Little Women, but just…sadness. Simple, uncomplicated, sadness. Christopher’s situation isn’t going to change. His feelings aren’t going to change. He’s forever lost to the people in his life. The adults in this book make some mind-bogglingly horrific decisions, but at the same time, as my friend said, one can almost understand those decisions, and I’m not sure how they could have done things differently.
This could have easily become “the book with the autistic boy” and Christopher could have easily become a caricature, but Haddon handles the story beautifully, and his prose is spare and delicate. The Curious Incident has been around for a while now, and if, like me, you’ve just never gotten around to it, get around to it soon.