Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The curious tale of the dog in the night-time

My wife did not get on with this book. She said she didn’t like the long descriptive bits and wanted to keep skipping ahead to the next bit where something happened, and she didn’t finish it. I suppose that’s a fair comment but for me it completely misses the whole point of what the book is about.

What this book is about is putting you inside the mind of someone who’s mind works a bit differently from most of ours. One of the best things about reading I think is getting into the head of someone who sees the world differently from me. I think most if not all of the books I’ve really enjoyed have been books which did that particularly well. Some, like this book or Addition are about people who see the same world as me but experience it differently due to their mental make-up (I’m not comfortable with using words like “disorder” or “illness” simply because people are different, but that’s another topic). Others, like One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich or Heart of Darkness show a person in a different environment, if you like showing in stereo what it means to be human at all. And at its best ‘chic lit’ type books are also showing a world that’s different to mine, if only because it’s being seen through a woman’s eyes. So the point of this book is not the story, it’s to show us the world through the eyes of Christopher, it’s main character, and I think it does that really well.

So what is Christopher’s condition? The blurb on the back of the book says the protagonist has Asperger’s Syndrome, now apparently called an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, but I gather the author has said that he didn’t specifically have that condition in mind when he wrote it. Certainly the main character has a lot of traits which aren’t like the people I know with ASD, but that could just be a difference of extent. But that’s not the point. The point is that Christopher is different – and as becomes immediately apparent, whatever he is, he’s not stupid.

This book then is at its best in the long passages that may not be important to the story but are telling us loads about the way Christopher sees the world and what’s important to him. At times I had to read the books in chunks because his very logical view of the world was hurting my head, but at all times I felt that his view of the world made sense and was internally consistent – not only was it believable, but it begged the question, isn’t this view just as reasonable as ours, and therefore isn’t it reasonable for us to make allowances for people like Christopher, to give them space to live within their own rules rather than forcing them to live by ours?

If I was going to be critical, I could say that there are points in the story where it seems to meander in a way that makes you wonder if the author knew where it was going when he started writing, and whether he just stopped writing at a point where he thought he’d written enough. But I’m not sure if that’s fair – it’s equally possible that the author had the full storyline in mind from the outset and that the meandering feel is again part of the fact that it’s being written from the main character’s viewpoint, and very much as the story goes along. Certainly at a smaller level the writing meanders from what’s going on to asides about food colouring and things he remembers from the past, so it would fit perfectly with the rest of the way the main character thinks.

On the positive side, the characters in this book are all utterly believable. I particularly liked the character of Siobhan, who I presume is Christopher’s teacher, and who we never actually meet, but from his references to her she comes across as wonderfully understanding and sympathetic and it’s obvious that he’s very fortunate to have someone like her helping him to understand the world.

The other thing I really loved about this book though, besides the really convincing depiction of the main character’s viewpoint, is that it has a wonderfully happy and uplifting, yet believable, ending.