Hazel McHaffie

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Mixed reviews

I’ve been giving myself a stern talking to this week. After a concerted burst of frenzied writing, I’d just sent out novel number 10, Listen, to my first raft of critics … I should have been feeling elated, yes? Well, I was … for about two days. But then the lowering thoughts started, the doubt, the gloomy prediction. My earlier books have had such generous reviews; what if nobody likes this latest one? Is there anything of value in it? What if I’ve gone past my sell-by date? What if I’ve lost my own powers of discernment?

And believe me, in the solitary world of a writer, it’s all too easy to sink into a trough of self-doubt. I’m my own sternest critic, always seeking to do better, never satisfied. But then, quite unsolicited, several unconnected people spontaneously commented on one or more of my books. Positively. You will never know what a welcome lifeline you threw me, folks. Thank you hugely.

My sane dispassionate self tells me that, of course, no author anywhere is going to please all the people all the time. Not even the best of the best, and I’m a million miles away from that pinnacle.

I’ve just finished ploughing through Mark Haddon’s The Red House. I really really really disliked it – the thin plot, the linguistic pretension, the whole thing – and had to force myself to  complete it. Whereas I loved his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Same with Sarah Waters, Lionel Schriver, JKRowling, to name but three famous authors. Fingersmith, We Need to Talk about Kevin, are among my top 50; I’m in awe of Rowling’s success with the Harry Potter books. But some of their subsequent writings left me unmoved.

So, I’m working at convincing myself that the world as we know it will not disintegrate if one or more of my critics doesn’t like this latest work. It might not be time to bin all ideas and drafts. To give up. It might simply be a question of taste; this particular book doesn’t appeal to this particular reader. Get over it!

It’s a very good thing that former apprentice painter and decorator from Coatbridge in Scotland, Brian Conaghan, didn’t give up, even after 217 rejections by publishers and agents. He persevered, he believed in himself, and he’s just won the Costa Children’s Book Award! I might re-read this paragraph every night before going to bed by way of therapy!


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Big issues and compelling reads

I wonder how many of you enjoy a book that tackles one of life’s big issues. The kind that makes you ask, ‘What would I have done in that situation?‘ Not everyone does, I know. Some people tell me they’re looking for escape from life’s challenges, they don’t want their leisure hours to be troubled by injustice or suffering or tragic choices. Ergo: ‘Sorry, but I won’t be reading your novels any time soon!

But me, I like something gritty, something that makes me stop and think. Dark and difficult sucks me in. And I prefer to take my time considering my response to delicate or unexpected situations, rather than risk crashing in with hob-nailed boots. Comes from years spent walking alongside families struggling with tragedy and loss, I guess. Or maybe I’m just a slow thinker.

I’ve had another good wallow in just such a book recently – a novel.

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with author Jodi Picoult. Cons? Her formulaic style; and the way she endows all her characters with the capacity for philosophising and uttering wise insights. Pros? The readable way she deals with big questions. Having put her on one side for a long time now, I came to her latest, House Rules, with a fresher mind. And this time the subject matter eclipsed the irritating aspects, so I enjoyed it much more than the last few she’s written.

House RulesJacob Hunt is eighteen. He’s obsessed with crime, and can recite laws and forensic facts verbatim. He can’t abide the colour orange. He lives by fixed rules. He has Asperger’s. Although he’s high-functioning, he finds it impossible to make friends. But there’s one exception: a young student, Jess Ogilvy, who’s paid to teach him social skills. Jess understands him, she has time for him … until a new boyfriend starts to monopolise her time and thoughts. Jacob is not a happy bunny.

But then, Jess is found dead. The finger points at Jacob. The evidence is overwhelming.

His mother, Emma, is torn between love for her son and a desire for justice to prevail. She’s the one who calls the police. She’s the one who fights for a fair trial that accommodates Jacob’s special needs. But she’s all too conscious that the symptoms of Asperger’s – the tics, the inappropriate actions and expressions, the lack of eye-contact – can all be interpreted as evidence of guilt.

Emma’s other son, Theo, is just fourteen and harbouring his own secrets and problems. Her ex-husband, Henry, reappears unexpectedly, but now she sees warning signs in him too. Her employer reckons the mother of a murderer can’t be a suitable person to continue writing an agony column for her publication.

Throw in a novice lawyer, a sensitive police officer, and a singularly unattractive boyfriend, and you have the usual melting pot for one of Picoult’s classic protracted legal wrangles.

But what shines through this fiction is the effect of Asperger’s, not only on the person who bears the diagnosis, but also on his family, on everyone he comes into close contact with. I do personally know a number of people on the autistic spectrum and I thought I was reasonably understanding, but this book gave me much better insights into the world they inhabit – rather like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time did when that came out in 2003. Or the Dustin Hoffman film, Rain Man.

I sincerely hope this book will make a difference in real lives. And I salute Picoult for her ability to combine a gripping narrative with a big issue – a delicate balance I constantly struggle to achieve.


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