“A Monster Calls,” by Patrick Ness, Candlewick Press, $16.99, ISBN: 978-0-7636-5559-4
There are moments in life when we blame ourselves for our most normal, basic, human emotions, yet we insist on punishing our spirits to the effect of damage. “What if? Why didn’t I? I should’ve known.” These haunting moments can take over our lives. They can become monsters, lurking in the corners and under the bed.
In Patrick Ness’ “A Monster Calls,” 13-year-old Conor awakens a monster, a monster that becomes something tangible. He’d been having a nightmare quite frequently, about his mother; the one with her hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. His mother is very sick, and her treatments aren’t working. The monster isn’t the worst thing in Conor’s life; there is something much much worse.
It is pretty bad though: “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.” The tree creeps up to Conor’s house, peers through the window, grabs him, and tells him stories, old tales of murder and consequence, bad guys and good guys, and mixed up morals and results. Things aren’t always as they seem. These are important lessons.
Conor’s mother is taken to the hospital, and he knows it is very bad. His grandmother insists he live in her house, and his father visits from America but refuses to promise a happy ending or even a supportive one as he has a new family to take care of. Conor is bullied at school, and the secret of his mother escapes and threads through the population, thanks to his previous best friend. There are days when he doesn’t speak a word to anyone at school, and no one speaks a word to him. Meanwhile, the monster visits at 12:07 a.m. waiting to hear a story back from Conor, of the truth that is within him. To Conor it is a terrible truth that he cannot face.
This book is powerful, commanding attention, demanding retrospection of the reader to moments we’ve had or are having. It examines a human reluctance to tread water in a sea of despair and acknowledges this reaction to pain as understandable. What a reader does with this acknowledgment is up to them. Personally, I cried. The book affected me for a few days, but the growth is worth it. Anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one, especially a slow death as one due to cancer or Alzheimer’s or AIDS, should read this book. “A Monster Calls” is published as a young adult novel, with fabulously dark illustrations befitting a tale about death and monster emotions, but it is just as well targeted at adults who have carried a burden such as Conor’s. I suspect most of us have. I would also recommend it to parents whose children are going through any emotional time, whether a death in the family or divorce, as understanding of how very powerful a child’s emotions are. And, of course, I recommend it to young adults going through such things.
A strong team is behind this short novel. Author Patrick Ness is a bestselling and critically acclaimed author. He knows about writing for children and teens. He was asked to pen this book after the death of author Siobhan Dowd. This would have been her fifth book. The idea, the characters and the beginning were already developed at her passing. Ness agreed to take it on but in using his own voice and style. His goal was to write a book that Siobhan would have liked. I think he has accomplished this. The illustrations throughout the book are rich and dark and intense, so very complimentary to the story. Jim Kay is a talented artist.
I’ll not give away the truth of the book, but it is enough to say that we all hold such truths and judge ourselves by them. Read the book, so your monster won’t have to visit you.