I would love to give you a hot-off-the-presses book review, but instead I can only write about books I read in my actual life (I’m saving the made-up version for my next book). And in my life, I’m often always behind. This book review is no exception. But stick with me. Pretty please with sugar and cherry on top! This weekend, I re-read a book I’ve read three times before. A book that has been out for years. My daughter was assigned the book in her English class and asked me a question as she was preparing to write a response so to refresh my memory, I glanced at the first page … and didn’t look up again until I reached the end.
And here’s why: It’s amazing.
The book? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Which I guess is timely in some ways because Haddon has a short story this week (miracle that I’m not behind on something) in The New Yorker (check it out here). The short version is that Curious tells the tale of fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, who discovers the slain body of his neighbor’s poodle and sets out to uncover the murderer. But it is so much more. Through this book, we are called to question our perceptions about love, growing up, and the human mind.
It’s November. I’m just starting Week Two of NaNoWriMo and NovPAD. So this time when I read the book, I kept my writer’s hat firmly in place and paid special attention to Haddon’s writing tools and techniques.
One of the best features of Curious is, in my humble opinion, the voice. In fact, it is so good let’s write that again but this time with capitals and a fancy font – The Voice. Christopher is highly logical, excessively literal, and extremely detached, which can be at times hilarious and at times devastating. His voice is so real, so genuine that I felt like I was there in the book with him as the story unfolded. Part of this success comes from Haddon’s use of first-person POV, which allows us to see the events of the novel through the eyes of the narrator and places us deep inside Christopher’s mind, forcing us to see the world in his very limited way. Haddon helps us understand Christopher by having him give us his opinions on the status quo. Looking at things I take for granted through Christopher’s eyes caused me to question some of my assumptions about the world and the so-called “normal” way of thinking.
Amazingly, Christopher is a phenomenal narrator despite is inability to relate emotionally to others. We still get our emotional fix, however, because Christopher is such a stickler for description (the book is full of vivid sensory imagery) and the facts. We are called to read between the lines, and it is easy to fill in the emotional void based on how others react to Christopher and his actions. Reading the book, I felt both wildly frustrated with and crazy mama-bear protective of Christopher as he tried to make his way in the world.
Haddon also manages to add depth and personality to secondary characters in creative ways. For example, readers learn about Christopher’s mother from her letters. Through the explanations she gives, the spelling errors she makes, even the way she recounts her job, we learn what makes her unique, some of her background, and how she will likely react to events in the story before she ever steps into a scene.
Lastly, the book is chock full of literary themes. One major theme in the book – and one that is not unexpected with a teenager as the central character – is the struggle for independence. Yawn. I know, it sounds trite. But in Curious, Haddon takes this common theme and gives it to us with a twist. Instead of the usual teen bucking the rules of mom & dad or society, Christopher is struggling to gain independence from his mental constraints. He is a character who, because of a mental health disorder, can never be fully independent. On some level, he recognizes this. And yet he struggles against his destiny. Throughout the book, he takes step after step in a direction of his own choosing. Starting with the search for dog murderer (against his father’s command to the contrary), through a solitary trip to London (challenging for a kid who can’t talk to strangers even to ask directions), and culminating in taking exams to move on to college (when he realizes he can now “do anything”), we bear witness to Christopher’s growing independence. At the same time, there is a nagging sense that the gap between Christopher and everyone else still exists – he hasn’t achieved independence. And he won’t. But he does change, and he manages to change the minds of some around him. Personally, I like this variation on a (very) common topic. There are only so many themes in the human story, and this book has inspired me to look for ways to twist them as I write my own stories.
What books have you read that inspire your writing? Have you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? I’d love to know what you think!