Dumbed-down we may be, but The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, BBC's Sherlock and Matt Haig's extraordinary forthcoming novel The Humans celebrate heroes whose defining characteristic is that they are all bordering on the autistic spectrum.
Don Tillman, professor of genetics, is a man for whom ratiocination is all; consequently, he has never been on a second date. His solution to "the Wife Problem" is to draw up a 16-page questionnaire scientifically designed to weed out anyone but the perfect partner. His plans definitely do not include Rosie, an unpunctual vegetarian barmaid.
Simsion dramatises the popular belief that emotional handicaps can accompany academic superiority, but his novel is more serious than a straightforward rom-com. He also asks us to redefine what is normal in a human being, and what constitutes prejudice. "Asperger's isn't a fault. It's a variant. It's potentially a major advantage… associated with organisation, focus, innovative thinking and rational detachment," Don tells a class. While he knows he is "wired differently", he is unable to understand why the rest of humanity is "incapacitated by emotion." Far from being the usual unreliable narrator he is reliably, hilariously, wrong. He doesn't even realise that he himself has Asperger's.
To hang an entire novel on one joke may sound limiting, but isn't. Fiction at its best expands our own ability to empathise and Don's journey towards being able to connect with the woman we soon realise is in love with him is fraught with drama. His Asperger's makes him an extreme version of the classic romantic hero, brooding, handsome, arrogant enough to assume that he can discard potential partners simply because they don't like ice-cream, but, underneath it all, kindly, vulnerable and very human.
As he teaches himself to dance by practising with his department's plastic skeleton and learns to see the blindingly obvious, we realise that there is a little bit of Don in all of us. Even if his transformation is a little too effortless, depicting those with Asperger's in this way is arguably more helpful than presenting it as tragic and incurable.
The Rosie Project was originally a film script, and its translation into a novel means that its action is conveyed largely through dialogue and dramatic monologue; it falls apart in the last third. But overall, if a more charming entertainment emerges from the Antipodes this year, we will be lucky indeed.Reuse content