Book review: A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness is basically an autobuy for me, because I adore his work, but somehow I completely missed A Monster Calls when it came out, which I’m quite upset about. Don’t be like me: Read this book, because it contains all of the things that make Ness such a great storyteller, and it’s such a fantastic tribute to Siobhan Dowd, the superb writer who developed the idea for A Monster Calls but died before she was able to write it. Ness picked up the pen and made it very much his own while still honouring her, and that can be a tricky balance to find.

I see this classed as young adult in some places, but this strikes me much more as middle grade in style and tone. Yes, the subject matter is dark, but middle grade can be quite dark! And this is a book that is about coming of age and struggling with things as you transition from childhood into teenhood, more than anything else. I think plenty of middle graders would dig it and get a lot of value out of it, as would people of other assorted age groups. I will be spoiling the plot a bit here, but I don’t think anything I’m talking about will be terribly surprising.

In A Monster Calls, Conor is haunted by a pervasive bad dream and he can’t figure out how to shake it. He forges a strange relationship with the yew tree behind his house when it starts talking to him, telling him a series of strange moral stories with twist endings that challenge Conor’s view of the world. While he’s trying to sort out his dreaming situation and the supernatural tree issue, he’s struggling at school, and his mother is ill with a form of cancer that appears to be resisting treatment.

This is a very intense book, in all the ways that Ness knows to make things intense. The language is often very spare and clean, but it’s elegant, and it twists the knife when it needs to. Ness is quite adept at evoking complicated emotions and also at being extremely cruel to readers, and he definitely nails it here.

On one level, this is a book about grief. What happens when someone you love is slipping away? How far are you willing to go to save them? Is Conor dreaming or is this reality? Where do the lines begin and end? Is the yew tree an actual presence in his life or a manifestation of his anxieties, fears, and worries? Is his grandmother really a gorgon, or is she sad and struggling? Is his father a thoughtless man who’s disappeared to live with another family, or is there more to the picture there?

It’s also a story about denial, because the book revolves around Conor’s steadfast stated belief that his mother will go into remission and they’ll continue their lives as before. His actions are predicated on that belief, even as the yew tree, his mother, and his grandmother all push him to face the truth. His refusal to face the truth also conceals another, darker part of himself — the part of him that wishes she would just die and get this over with, because the waiting and suffering is excruciating. It’s a part of himself that he hates, and, furious at himself for the way he thinks about his mother’s illness, Conor appears bent on punishing himself but also, to some extent, his mother, for if she weren’t sick, none of this would be happening.

There are a lot of layers here. I haven’t been in Conor’s position and I don’t know what it’s like to lose a parent as a young child, when your parent is the whole of your life and you think of them as immortal, not subject to the rules of the world. I imagine that people who have may find this book a rough read, because it’s raw, intense, challenging — like Ness’ other work, it doesn’t dance around issues and sometimes the clear, plain prose makes it almost more painful, because there is nothing to hide behind. This is it. The story is the story.

I do know what it is like to lose someone, though, and to battle with the complicated feelings that surround death, and the guilt that can pile in on top of those feelings. As Conor hates himself for wanting his mother to die, and hates her for making him hate himself, he’s dealing with a snarl of emotions that he feels like he can’t openly admit, let alone talk about. His relationship with the yew tree in theory provides a way to work through those, but the tree (or his subconscious) knows that this is something darker and more complex, that he must actually talk to his mother about how he is feeling.

Conor is caught in the trap of a storm of emotions and not having enough time to do anything about it. There’s no time to have a serious conversation with his mother about what’s going on. There’s no time for him to forgive himself or to forgive her. There’s no time to face the facts of her condition and her looming death. And Ness acknowledges that in a book that is both about death and dying, and about the death of the woman who never lived to write it herself — sometimes, we just run out of time.

Image: Hollow Yew, Jos van Wunnick, Flickr