Cannonball Read IV: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
The author's note explains that this a book originally conceived, and started, by author Siobhan Dowd. Unfortunately, Ms. Dowd passed away before she could get past the basic outline of the story, and Patrick Ness was approached to finish her book. I was really intrigued by this aspect of it, adopting someone else's story as your own - being passed the baton, as Ness describes it. I have not read Ness' highly-praised Walking Chaos trilogy (which I will be rectifying immediately), so this is my first introduction to his work. What a spectacular introduction it was.
At 12:07 each night, Conor O'Malley awakens from a nightmare, only to find another sort of nightmare right outside his window: a giant yew tree that has come for him. The yew is ancient and matter-of-fact, it has a mission and it will complete it. On the surface, this is a good old-fashioned monster tale, but thanks to Ness' incredibly talented writing, there is so much more going on underneath. Conor's daytime life is even more complicated, his mother has cancer and her most recent treatments haven't been working, his dad has moved from England to America and has a new family, and Conor faces bullies and other obstacles at school.
The book is laced from the beginning with a sort of dark humor, mostly coming from Conor, a 13-year-old who is both wise beyond his years and still a typical kid. Conor cooks his own meals, does the wash and takes out the trash - he has taken on an adult's weight of responsibility but still yearns for the normal things that adolescents do, even if he won't admit it to himself. The characterization is one of many great things about this novel; each one has a very distinct personality and voice, and even the smaller players are given depth and dimension.
What is really great about this book is the contrast between fantasy and reality. When I was reading it, I often thought about the movie Pan's Labryinth and writer Neil Gaiman. This is not to say the author is derivate, but rather that his writing evoked much of the same tone and feeling. His story is deceptively simple, but he uses Conor's fantasy world to contrast the burden of fear, grief, loneliness, responsibility, etc. Is Conor really seeing a monster, or is he using it to channel his fears? Fear is a big player here. Fear of abandonment, of being invisible, of helplessness, of growing up. Our fears can be crippling, but learning to move past them can be the most freeing thing of all. All of these things are significant to Conor's story, but they are all things we, the readers, can relate to as well, and that is the sign of a truly great story.
The absolutely wonderful illustrations also deserve a mention. All black and white sketches, they start out simple enough, and as the story grows more complex, so do the sketches. They complement the story perfectly and some of them were just downright gorgeous.
Ness has an amazing eye for detail as well. There are many things introduced in the beginning that stand well on their own, but as the story progresses, you realize they had a bigger purpose the whole time. For instance: why the monster comes at 12:07 exactly, why it takes the form of a yew tree, and the significance of the stories the monster tells Conor. The stories the monster tells are my favorite part. They are morality tales, but they don't necessarily end the way you would expect. Conor complains that they're terrible stories because they don't have happy endings, but these stories, to me, are captivating because they, A) establish that not all stories have happy endings, B) present a moral ambiguity that seems very true to real life, and C) highlight the complex, often contradictory nature of people (one that is paralleled in Conor's story).
This book is beautiful, poignant, and affecting, but most of all it transcends genre to the point that it is really just a great story to read. You can have great ideas or great plot points, but you need a skilled writer to bring it all together, and Ness has done that flawlessly. The book has a timeless feel to it, in the way that if someone were to pick this up fifty or one hundred years from now, they could still relate, and that right there is something special. I absolutely cannot recommend this book enough - I would give it a hundred stars if I could. If you're a fan of good writing and entertaining stories, I urge you to read this book. Right now!