It’s been quite awhile since I was totally riveted by a book. I’ve known about Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and a number of trusted book bloggers have recommended this book to me, especially since it’s perfect for our Paranormal/Carnivale theme for January and February. I also follow Ness on Twitter and liked his Facebook Fan Page (yup, I am smitten, that is so me, blatantly unashamed to admit a simple harmless fact).
I know that the book is designed to move, to make one feel, and yes make one cry. Thus, I tried to keep my distance from it, refusing to be reeled in. I had a feeling – from the book cover alone – that it will absorb me – and so it did. But for reasons that I did not expect nor predict.
Anger and Grief – unpleasant bedfellows. Iphigene and I were chatting as I was drafting this post. And one of the things I told her was that Patrick Ness is a man who knows what grief means. He is at the center of it, unraveling and untangling its sinewy tendrils – yet also apart from it, beyond it, at a distance, allowing the reader to not just peek through and have a glimpse but to immerse one’s self in it. It reminded me of two books that I have reviewed here two years back: David Almond and Dave McKean’s The Savage and their other book Slog’s Dad.
Conor, a 13 year old boy in England, is visited every night by this monster (which took the form of a yew tree) at precisely 12:07 a.m. – as his mother is slowly eaten away by cancer. A Monster Calls shows us in physical form what grief looks like:
As Conor watched, the uppermost branches of the tree gathered themselves into a great and terrible face, shimmering into a mouth and nose and even eyes, peering back at him. Other branches twisted around one another, always creaking, always groaning, until they formed two long arms and a second leg to set down beside the main trunk. The rest of the tree gathered itself into a spine and then a torso, the thin, needle-like leaves weaving together to make a green, furry skin that moved and breathed as if there were muscles and lungs underneath. (pp. 14-15)
Stories are Wild Things.
Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt. “That’s what teachers always say,” Conor said. “No one believes them either.” And when I have finished my three stories, the monster said, as if Conor hadn’t spoken, you will tell me a fourth. Conor squirmed in the monster’s hand. “I’m no good at stories.” You will tell me a fourth, the monster repeated, and it will be the truth. “The truth?” Not just any truth.Your truth. (pp. 45-46)
Similar to David Almond’s The Savage the reader will find tales within tales as told by the ancient tree – “three tales from when I walked before” (p. 45). While it sounds folk-tale-ish, stories supposedly-meant to illuminate and give one closure – it leaves Conor feeling a little more imbalanced, perturbed, and seemingly thrown in a thicket of even greater confusion compared to where they’d began.
Amidst Conor’s burning Anger that consumes him like a forest fire from within, the bullies he had to deal with in school (meet the charming would-be-psychopath of a young boy destined to be Prime Minister in all his calculated golden boy glory), his staggering invisibility among his teachers and classmates who handle him so gingerly (despite his monstrous fits, listlessness in the classroom, indifference with deadlines and homeworks) – it is as if he ceased to exist. To see him is to feel his pain. And who would want that?
Beyond Cancer, Death, and Dying. I feel that simply classifying this as a book about cancer, death, and dying would be doing it a great disservice. Yes it is that. But it is so much more. When I said that I was absorbed by this book for different reasons, this is what I mean. I refuse to be moved by anything inauthentic, canned, and specifically orchestrated to make me cry – but you see this book has blindsided me. In its genuine voice and deep (yet refreshingly youthful) wisdom about pain and loss, it attacked me sideways, reconfiguring my slightly-cocked eyebrows, shattering my adult skepticism to smithereens – and simply made me feel. I was Conor. And I needed to find my own truth.
At the very center of Conor’s festering wound is a truth that would not be revealed, can not be spoken – and so we sidestep around it, dance around its edges, refusing to recognize the words that have the power to stop the universe in its tracks – because there exists a gaping chasm of wordless pain where scars do not heal – a place where nightmare terrors and soundless screams are buried – and the only way out of it is “By speaking the truth” (p. 201):
Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both. (p. 201)
And so the book forces the reader to acknowledge the demons that exist within, unearth them from where they are buried, and speak their truths. Why? Because it is the only way to know and heal one’s self.
Description of authors are taken from the book jacket cover.
Patrick Ness is the author of the critically-acclaimed and bestselling Chaos Walking trilogy. He has won numerous awards including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Booktrust Teenage Prize and the Costa Children’s Book Award. He lives in London.
Siobhan Dowd was the widely-loved, prize-winning author of four books, two of which were published after her death from cancer, aged 47. In 2009, she became the first author ever posthumously awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal.
Jim Kay studied illustration and worked in the archives of the Tate Gallery and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, two experiences that heavily influence his work. His images for A Monster Calls use everything from beetles to breadboards to create interesting marks and texture.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. From an Original Idea by Siobhan Dowd. Illustrations by Jim Kay. Published by Walker Books, 2011. Book provided for review by Pansing Books.
Booklist magazine’s Best Children’s Book of the Year, Galaxy Children’s Book of the Year, shortlisted for the Red House Children’s Book Award and the 2011 Kitschies Red Tentacle Award.
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 9 of 35