Today’s review is of A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, and illustrated by Jim Kay.
(Again, this is Sam – on my own. I have a couple of reviews waiting from Holly to put up but she’s been busy with end-of-year assessments at school, so we’ll get those up very soon.)
Image courtesy of www.telegraph.co.uk
What it’s about (from the publisher):
The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.
But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly ever night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming …
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth.
I’ve been sitting here for two hours, trying to write this review. I don’t even know where to start. I keep getting up, going to the loo, making a cup of tea and coming back to stare at the screen.
It’s common for me to like, or even love, books. It’s not common for me to be so taken with them that words elude me. To worry that I am doing an injustice to the book by trying to review it. However, A Monster Calls is one of those books. Reading it was harrowing but I didn’t want it to end, as I felt I was living alongside 13-year-old Conor and sharing in his pain. But finish it I did, early this morning at 1am, tears streaming down my face.
The power of this book lies in its perfection. Nothing is wasted – no word is superfluous; the distressing subject matter is depicted with economic language and the understatement heightens its emotional charge. There are no histrionics to ensure that we fully understand Conor’s daily inner turmoil; instead there is an uncertain calm that simmers with tension, fear and incredible bravery as a very isolated Conor faces his greatest fears with stoicism.
However, anger at his mother’s condition, at the fact that classmates and teachers are either treating him with kid gloves or are bullying him for being different, and his sadness over his father’s abandonment of him and his mother for a new family in the USA, threaten to swallow him as he experiences far too much grief than is fair for a 13-year-old to shoulder. This is where the Yew Tree comes in – an unlikely and terrifying ally for Conor but whose mission, it slowly appears, is to help Conor come to terms with his world through the telling of stories: three told by the Yew Tree, and the last Conor’s own, which he does not want to share.
Having read the story originally on Kindle, with some of the illustrations included (you can click on them to enlarge them) I had to go out and buy the proper, hardback version, full of its breathtaking pictures by Jim Kay.
The Monster comes for Conor: www.guardian.co.uk
These add even more emotional depth to an already powerful book through the nightmarish use of monochrome, almost like photograph negatives in appearance. The shapes are rarely rounded but spiky, angular and violent, which complement the text. The Yew Tree monster is rather like the pagan symbol of the Green Man, and its use in this book about death is significant. Its presence and appearance might be terrifying but its meaning – that of rebirth and new life – gives some hope to the bleak story.
The Yew Tree Monster bares a striking resemblance to the pagan Green Man. I love this picture because it expresses his own vulnerability. Image courtesy of thebooksmugglers.com
The tragedy and awful irony that lies in this book, and which remains with the reader long afterwards, is the fact that Siobhan Dowd – who came up with, as Patrick Ness says in his Author’s Note, ‘the characters, a premise and a beginning’ did not have the time to write it as she died from cancer at the young age of 47. Luckily, Patrick Ness stepped in to complete this work, though not without doubt, ‘When I was asked if I would consider turning her work into a book, I hesitated. What I wouldn’t do – what I couldn’t do – was write a novel mimicking her voice. That would have been a disservice to her, to the reader, and most importantly to the story.’
Patrick Ness needn’t have worried. A Monster Calls is a real masterpiece and Ness should feel proud of what he has achieved with Dowd’s original idea. This book deserves to be read by people of all ages – it’s not just a novel for children. I urge you to pick it up and read it, but make sure you have tissues to hand at the end.
Have you read A Monster Calls? Please share your thoughts if so – I would love to hear them!
What books have made you cry?
Note: Part of Siobhan Dowd’s legacy lies in the creation of the Siobhan Dowd Trust, which seeks to bring books and reading to vulnerable young people in the UK. You can find out more about the Trust’s work here.