While I have repeatedly shared that I dread writing reviews of YA books (especially those I feel very strongly about), I am willing to make certain exceptions. For this particular ‘review’ – I am stretching my creative boundaries a little by weaving my musings around the female protagonist: Viola Eade. It is true that a large part of the book is wrapped around the concept of becoming a man [and is hardly the first book you would think about when we talk about a girl-power-themed book]. Todd Hewitt, the voice in the tale, also prefigures greatly in the narrative and in this write up. While not overtly apparent, I felt quite simply that the subtleties embedded in the story and the ultimate message conveyed are empowering and highlight that sense of other-ness and sense of unity/communion that permeates humanity and the universal tenets of compassion, courage, and wholeness.
A River of Noise and the Stones of Silence: The Male-Female Conundrum. The setting of the novel is somewhere in the not-so-distant future, enough to warrant it a dystopian vibe. While it may bring to mind a few popular dystopian novels such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (another trilogy I loved and enjoyed), I was reminded more of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with the rebuilding-the-world sense – and a few threaded themes that may be considered tangentially similar.
Ness, however, has managed to carve a niche for himself in this story alongside masterful storytellers of not only the YA genre, but in the literary world. Prentisstown, Todd Hewitt (the last boy in this ‘cursed’ town), Viola Eade – live on through him, and independent of him, the writer. They have moved past the ‘realm of the imagined’ – to embodied, actual beings with their own thoughts and realities.
In this futuristic universe, everyone can hear (and even envision) everyone’s thoughts in a torrent of Noise – even ‘creachers’ or animals have a voice. For Todd who was born into this world, there was never a moment of silence. Rumor has it that there was a virus that spread in this new world, causing men to hear each others’ thoughts, and the women to die. Todd describes it in this fashion:
Noise is noise. It’s crash and clatter and it usually adds up to one big mash of sound and thought and picture and half the time it’s impossible to make any sense of it at all. Men’s minds are messy places and Noise is like the active, breathing face of that mess. It’s what’s true and what’s believed and what’s imagined and what’s fantasized and it says one thing and a completely opposite thing at the same time and even tho the truth is definitely in there, how can you tell what’s true and what’s not when yer getting everything?
The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking. – Todd Hewitt, p. 42
These lines made me think of the ‘noise’ we have in this world, with people seemingly unable to stand a moment’s silence. There has to be this constant white noise in the background, be it through one’s ipod, audio books, inane chatter from the television screen – there is a seeming rush to fill a void of quiet.
This void is exactly what Todd found as he was picking swamp apples a month before he becomes ‘officially a man’ according to Prentisstown standards. Unexpectedly, there was a moving space of silence, of deathly quiet, which he later discovered – came in the form of a girl, Viola Eade. And his world has been turned over in its head – with the realization that despite the constant barrage of noise, allowing him unfettered access to his neighbors’ thoughts – his entire reality is prefabricated – a make-believe to protect him from certain truths buried under layers of pain edged with desperate hope.
Viola Eade was a mystery – someone Todd can not hear. Women supposedly died from the virus, the germ that caused the noise, so technically her existence was already an aberration in Todd’s innocent eyes. Her silence was like a gaping wound that draws Todd closer to it, weak-kneed and in tears, unable to help himself:
“… when I run towards it the emptiness of it is touching my chest and the stillness of it pulls at me and there’s so much quiet in it, no not quiet, silence, so much unbelievable silence that I start to feel really torn up, like I’m about to lose the most valuable thing ever, like there it is, a death, and I’m running and my eyes are watering and my chest is just crushing and there’s no one to see but I still mind and my eyes start crying, they start crying, they start effing crying” – Todd Hewitt, pp. 15-16
Todd’s discovery of Viola has caused an upheaval in Prentisstown, leading to Todd’s escape from a town that he thought was the only surviving place in the universe (all the rest, he thought in his not-yet-a-man mind, was wiped out by the germ), hurling him towards being Viola’s protector – not out of desire, but of necessity. While he was uncouth, crass, unschooled, Todd was kind. And brave enough to do the right thing, even if it means running away to some unknown place with a girl who does not trust him and an entire army (that grows bigger in size the nearer it gets to them) chasing them alongside a wild-eyed fiercely-religious fanatic [Aaron] who believes that he is God’s gift to man, firm in his resolve to make Todd Hewitt a man, whether he wants to or not.
The Journey towards Haven [and Redemption?]. The entire narrative shows both Viola and Todd on foot, going from one hungry town to the next, in their attempts to reach Haven, the supposed ‘city’ where they can find answers. In their journeys, they tentatively felt through the other’s pain, seeking understanding and a quiet that is not shaped like a wound, the other’s waning strength an unwieldy tether that keeps them tied to this world. I also loved the way Todd described the silences of other women (apparently they exist) and the roaring river of men’s noise in this fashion:
If you listen close, you can hear where the women are in town almost as clear as the men. They’re like rocks that the Noise washes over and once yer used to it you can feel where their silences are, dotted all about… – Todd Hewitt, p. 180
As they run run run, they come face to face with raving lunatics, with ax-wielding aggrieved murderers, with Spackles (the natives of the land), and one town that neatly segregates the men from women. In one such settlement [Carbonel Downs], the men of the land refused to include Viola in the meetings, requiring only the presence of Todd – the women living in one dormitory as they were tasked to cook, clean, and make babies, while the eldermen attend to business and important matters. At one point, the elderman referred to Viola as Todd’s girl, to which Todd replied:
“She ain’t my girl,” I say, low.
“What?” Doctor Snow says.
“What?” Viola says.
“She’s her own girl,” I say. “She don’t belong to me.”
As the reader is privileged to follow Todd’s pathways to becoming a man, the reader also sees Viola’s quiet strength, her aggrieved hurt, her fears, and her steadfastness that provided Todd a measure of hope. The ending was also unbelievably brilliant. Yet coming from the man who created A Monster Calls, I should not have been surprised. I am smitten.
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Chaos Walking: Book One. Walker Books, 2008. Review copy provided by Pansing Books.
Winner of Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. AWB Reading Challenge Update: 26 of 35