A few weeks back, I have done a review of The Knife of Never Letting Go with a special focus on the silence of Viola Eade as we are doing a Girl Power theme here in GatheringBooks until next week. As I review The Ask and the Answer, I would be focusing on ‘the answer’ – another powerful female whose voice emerged quiet and clear in the second book in the series: Mistress Coyle. I anticipate that it would be difficult to write this review without spoilers, so do read at your own risk fellow bibliophiles. But for those who enjoyed and loved this series, do enjoy this piece as I would also like to hear your thoughts about the book and the characters.
Who is ‘The Answer?’ It was interesting for me to see how the entire notion of The Ask and The Answer evolved throughout the novel. I know I will be gushing once again, but Patrick Ness is a storyteller who would take you to depths of strangenesses and lead you to circuitous routes you would not have expected – and darknesses too of the soul (seemingly boundless in its depth), but always edged with light and hope.
As Mayor Prentiss grows in power and establishes the New Prentisstown (formerly known as Haven), another woman of equal power and cunning gradually emerges in the narrative: Mistress Nicola Coyle (whom I depicted here as Judi Dench, one of my favorite Hollywood actresses). Rather than walk you through a synopsis (which I hardly ever do), I would rather focus on a few character profiles in the novel. Ness has literally crafted a world teeming with creatures and characters who are as real as you and me – for that alone, he deserves all the accolades he continues to receive for this trilogy.
I don’t know how I feel about Mistress Coyle. Her past is a tad mysterious but she strikes me as a woman with a formidable presence. Resolute and cunning – her deception, guile, and deceit are often interwoven with her best intentions, larger vision, and her resolve to vanquish a much bigger evil. Her healing prowess is renowned and universally acknowledged even by those who may dislike her. She describes herself in this fashion:
“I’m a healer. The first thing I ever see is skin and so I know it well. Skin tells the story of a person, where they’ve been, where they’ve eaten, who they are.” (p. 75)
Yet there is something unyielding about her, unmoving, and forbidding that it is difficult to ‘read’ her or second-guess her plans and motivations. Her manipulative tactics are pure woman – strikingly strategic, blindsiding the opponent as she is four or five steps ahead, anticipating Mayor Prentiss’ each move and doing it with equanimity and grace, her feathers unruffled by the mandatory losses and casualties of war.
As the novel progresses, the reader is left wondering whether she is, in essence, as bad as her arch-nemesis, the tyrant Mayor Prentiss (who insists to be called the President of the entire planet) – or whether her measures are indeed a justifiable response given the desperate times (as the trite cliche goes).
The Reinvention of Todd and Viola. In contrast to the first book, the entire novel is written using two perspectives/voices. The chapter alternates in such a way that one gets to hear Todd’s noise and realities, and in another chapter, the reader is privileged to ‘listen’ to Viola’s silences and narrative. This dual-narration detracted from the once-mysterious quality of Viola’s character since one can now get into her ‘skin’ and discern her motivations and deduce her innermost feelings.
Todd and Viola are likewise forced to be in opposing camps – each one’s safety and well-being predicated on the other’s cooperation and submission. It was painful seeing them struggle to be with each other in the first few chapters then gradually readjust to a life without the other – accepting what they believe to be inevitable. And as they are gradually led to commit atrocities which continually test their character, they learn to cope and tough it out using various means (Todd’s embracing I am the Circle and the Circle is Me to shut out his pain and anguish, while Viola grows closer each day to another boy named Lee from her camp). In this novel, the reader gets to see Todd become a leader as Viola also struggled with who she is based on the choices she makes: “We are the choices we make.” As they gradually acknowledge that they are each other’s weaknesses, Viola is startled to glean this truth which goes beyond her years – a gnawing realization borne of pain:
The Mayor’s wrong – He’s wrong for ever and ever – It’s not that you should never love something so much it can control you. It’s that you need to love something that much so you can never be controlled. It’s not a weakness – It’s your best strength – (p. 492)
The Spackle and the Metal Bands – Sociological and Philosophical Musings. The novel takes on a harrowing twist as one becomes more familiarized with the Spackle and the subhuman treatment they receive from the hands of the Mayor, Davy, and Todd. Reminiscent of genocide and concentration camps, the actual natives of the planet were rounded up and numbered. Todd describes the process in this way:
It’s how we marked sheep back in Prentisstown. You take the tool Davy’s holding and you wrap a metal band around a sheep’s leg. The tool bolts the ends together tight, too tight, so tight it cuts into the skin, so tight it starts an infeckshun. But the metal’s coated with a medicine to fight it so what happens is that the infeckted skin starts to heal around the band, grow into it, replacing that bit of skin with the metal band itself.
I look up again at the Spackle, looking back at us.
Cuz the catch is, it don’t heal if you take it off. The sheep’ll bleed to death if you do. You put a band and it’s yers till it dies. There ain’t no going back from it. (p. 136)
And this is how the Spackle loses their identity and gains a numbered one through the metal bands. And this is why Todd needs to silence his wordless horror and pained noise with senseless chants. How can one go back from this? How can one forgive one’s self and find redemption? And it is with unspeakable acts, newfound strength, shifts in power, and betrayals heaped upon more betrayals that I begin Book 3, the Final installment in the Trilogy.
The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness. Walker Books, London, 2009. Book provided by Pansing Books.
Winner of the 2009 Costa Children’s Book Award. Shortlisted for the 2009 Teenage Book of the Year Award 2009. Nominated for the prestigious 2010 Carnegie Award.
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 44 (35)