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).

Poster courtesy of our treasured Iphigene

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)

Illustration by Jim Kay – sourced from the net. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.
Just outside the west door of the church of St Mary in Eastling, this venerable tree is said to be around 2000 years old. © Copyright Penny Mayes and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence – please click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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?

Illustration by Jim Kay – taken from Kay’s official website – click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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.

Illustration by Jim Kay – image taken from his official website. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

21 comments on “Wordless Truths Riddled with Pain: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

  1. I know what you mean about Patrick Ness really knowing the meaning of grief, at least I was able to feel that in The Knife of Never Letting Go. But A Monster Calls seems to be a notch higher than his Chaos Walking trilogy (which I haven’t had the chance to finish by the way) A Monster Calls seems to be a powerful story coupled with powerful illustrations. I hope I can get a copy soon. 😀


    • Hi Tin! Yes, you should definitely get yourself a copy of this one. A keeper is what it is.


    • And yes, Tin, I really think I should get around to reading the Chaos Walking Trilogy too. It’s in my bookshelves now, I have to crack it open at one point or another. Might as well begin now. Still buried deeply though in Madam Ninotchka Rosca’s labyrinthine “Twice Blessed.”


  2. Well, Myra, you know I’ve read it & written about it too. It is a remarkable book & you are right about it being just a step above others. It still reminds me of that metaphor so often used named ‘the elephant in the living room’ only in my experience no one has ever described that so thoroughly. Thanks for illuminating the book further for me.


    • Hi Linda, I recalled reading your review and being inspired to read the book based on your recommendation. It IS a powerful book, one that I predict, would change in every re-reading.


  3. As promised here are my thoughts on the book:

    When I read this book I got immersed in Conor’s life. I was him and he was me. It doesn’t take knowing someone with Cancer to be able to understand Conor’s feelings. Anyone who has at one point in his or her life gone through something emotionally profound would understand that pent up anger, that confusion, that isolation and that feeling that you are defined by that ‘crutch.’ While society means well, it has an ability to isolate you in its concern. Conor became the boy whose mom had cancer, at some point in my teenage life I became the child with separated parents.

    The beauty of this book aside from its authenticity, it non attempts at making you ‘feel’ is its ability to capture life, its messiness. Because life is messy, even my obsessive compulsive desires cannot clean out life. Ness celebrates this messiness where people are walking paradoxes and anger not necessarily a completely evil and detestable emotion. The author portrays every ounce of child-like emotion, the complexity of dealing with real life problems and the simple desires that eat us up with guilt for feeling them.
    And yet what solution does this book offer. Its nothing complex. Its as simple as stating the truth. Oh how wonderful it is to be able to lay it all out there, however we are all aware that the truth is not easy. We know it, but uttering them is a declaration that can only reveal how evil we are. Ah, but are we truly bad people for feeling these things. Is it bad to feel relieved when someone we’ve taken care of all our lives dies? Such dilemmas! Such complex things that make us wiser at every moment we confront a decision.

    Myra has done this book much justice in her review. I can only gloss over with my own thoughts.


    • Iphigene, I loved reading through your thoughts. It IS as if we have done a collaborative blog post, here, you and I. Thank you for the kind words. I believe you have done the book justice too by speaking your truth. And with such candor, at that. 🙂 Oh the things that make us older. Not necessarily wiser. But yes, older. The lines in our face betraying pains felt and truths yet unuttered.


  4. Note to self: Must buy this. 🙂


    • Baby girl, you should definitely get yourself a copy of this one. 🙂


    • Let me share a quote I found while drafting my review for BHM…

      “True transformation occurs only when we can look at ourselves squarely and face our attachments and inner demons, free from the buzz of commercial distraction and false social realities. We have to retreat into our own cocoons and come face-to-face with who we are. We have to turn toward our own inner darkness. For only by abandoning its attachments and facing the darkness does the caterpillar’s body begin to spread out and its light, beautiful wings begin to form.” (by Julia Butterfly Hill)

      While I haven’t read the book, I felt that this quote is very fitting. 🙂


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