[This review was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, June 2014.]
In a former life as a secondary school teacher I taught several students with (the then poorly-understood) Asperger’s syndrome.
One girl in a class of mine almost never did the work I asked her to do and sometimes I would get very frustrated with her.
After several months I was casually told that she had this syndrome and of course I felt terrible for badgering her. (This is just a little story to illustrate that in education those with the knowledge (and therfore the power) often do not not share it and innocent adults and children get hurt as a result.)
In Mark Haddon’s book there is also plenty of hurt.
Christopher, the narrator, has Asperger’s. He also has an incredible eye for detail, an acute sense of smell, an impressive general knowledge and a phenomenal memory which he says is like a film that he can "rewind, fast forward and pause."
Christopher is 15 years old. He needs predictitability and a high degree of order in his life and his empathetic teacher Siobhan is central to that need.
He likes Sherlock Holmes books, University Challenge, mathematics and policeman…except when he has cause to hit them. Christopher is prone to violent outbursts when his senses are overloaded but his regard for the simple affections of animals is clear.
When he discovers that a neighbours dog that has been brutally killed he puts himself on the case to find the culprit.
Meanwhile, he comes across several dozen letters that his mother has written to him over the last few years since separating from Christopher and his father, who has been hiding these touching, nostalgic letters from him.
After an explosive conflict with his father Christopher decides that he must travel to London to live with his mother and this brings another dimension to his suddenly very mixed-up world.
Mark Haddon’s book is purely from the point of view of one teenage boy, as it is experienced directly from his senses and brain. A reader could expect this to create some problems because of these limitations to the narrative but I found few reasons to not genuinely enjoy this book.
Occasionally, I thought the mathematical and logic puzzles included in the text were a bit irrelevant and the insistent self-referencing of Christopher’s voice was slightly irritating to me but there is a lot to like about the way this story is told.
There is a beautiful but accidental poetry to some of Christopher’s descriptions of nature – (Haddon also does write poems) and overall it is a seemingly excellent gradual explanation of the mind and personality of a young person with a syndrome that is more common than we might think.
On just the second page for example, we are treated to a simple diagram of facial expressions which provide an insight into how those with this syndrome have great difficulty in "reading" or interpreting other people’s body language or understanding how emotions are typically displayed.
As it turns it, we are all apparently operating in our lives at a point somewhere on the spectrum of autism and this gives weight to the idea that we are not so different to characters like Christopher, either real or imagined.