Well this book has received more acclaim than most over the last few years so I was curious (ha ha) to see what it was like when a friend thrust this into my hand over the summer.
On most levels, it didn’t dissapoint. On others it did. I suppose this it’s fair to say that pretty much any good book will do that though so it wasn’t a bad read at all.
The British are known for their acerbic wit, and this book follows in that tradition but adds a little twist. The perspective is the twist. We are trapped in the mind of Christopher, a child with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. This is the world as, supposedly, an autistic child sees it with all it’s straightened logic and lack of holistic perspective.
Where this works is that I don’t think there’s been a book before that does this and the reader is captivated by the sheer originality. But while this is a great vehicle for some things (i.e. the application of mathematics to the mundane), it fails miserably for others.
For example, it’s one thing for a child in this condition to apply their mind to trying to solve the mystery of how a dead dog ends up on his neighbour’s lawn. It’s quite another for them to speculate on the origins, raison d’etre and function of the universe, whether God does in fact exist, why religion may be meaningless and the worth of heaven as a reality. This kind of non-material reasoning seems fa-fetched for someone with this condition as far as I know. It seems those who know far more than me think so too.
Christopher applies an unyeilding logic to everything. He can’t eat brown things because they look like poo and you don’t eat poo. In a similar vein then, God doesn’t exist cos you can’t see him.
I believe Haddon is using Christopher’s oft-stated atheism as a vehicle for his own view of the supernatural. I would have taken that as a given some months ago, but with comments on this blog revealing that outright opinions in novels (blogs?) these days could be branded as “propaganda,” I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that. But I’m going to anyway.
And the problem with this is that any healthy adult (and quite a few healthy five year olds) will tell you that refusing to eat brown stuff on those grounds is, quite simply, bonkers. And thus it follows that such a basis for denial of God is bonkers too as many a five year old will also tell you.
I’m not so sure Haddon has thought this through fully. In one scene, Christopher tells a story/joke of how on seeing a brown cow in a field three scientists make different generalisations from what they see. It’s the mathemetician that Christopher praises though, because he’s the only one who goes no further than stating that the cow has only one side that “appears to be brown.” This use of “appears” seems to suggest that we can’t know what we haven’t proved to be absolute.
Christopher later says that “there is always something new that science can discover, and all the facts that you take for granted can be completely wrong.” But while his reasoning implies that we should be very careful about what we state as being absolutely true or not, the character has no hesitation in saying that God can’t possibly exist.
This seems a contradiction that is out of character and one glaring example of how Christopher’s logic is flawed is provided by the application of it to the fact of his mother and her role in the book. I won’t give it away but he doesn’t think to question what he is told about her and gets the facts completely and utterly wrong based on the limited info he has. If he was able to learn from his mistakes, he’d know that he should therefore question what he thinks he knows for certain about God. I wonder if Haddon does.
Despite this weakness, the book has a good plot, interesting sub-plots, is emotionally engaging and, as I’ve said, original. It’s an easy read even if the issues it raises aren’t easy in themselves: the limitations of rationlism, failure and forgiveness of parents under pressure, how far someone with such a condition can be involved in “normal” society, etc. I’d recommend it.
It was seven minutes after midnight.
This is a bit spoiler-y so click if you want to know show
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb