Conor’s mother is terminally ill. Her struggle with cancer has dragged on and on, and yet Conor remains hopeful because his mother has always told him that everything will be okay. Then Conor receives a visit from a monster–part hulking creature, part Yew tree–and the monster tells him that he’ll tell Conor three stories in exchange for Connor’s telling of one truthful story. Conor listens to the monster’s stories and fights against the truth that is welling up inside him.
Much has been made of the fact that Patrick Ness took an idea from Siobhan Dowd–who passed away before she could complete her own version of this story–and ran with it, creating a moving and powerful novel of his own. This is all true. Ness is a good writer–his Chaos Walking trilogy showcased that. A Monster Calls leaves the trilogy in the dust and elevates Ness to a new level of writing. This book is that good.
The book is full of strong elements, but one of its strongest is the pairing of Ness’s prose with Jim Kay’s pen-and-ink drawings. The text curves around Kay’s illustrations, almost hugging the drawings. The darkness of the drawings combined with the darkness of Conor’s world is a perfect, heartbreaking pairing.
In addition to the remarkable text and illustrations, Ness has crafted characters that feel real. Conor is well-developed, as is his ailing mother and his rather persnickety grandmother. The dialogue is believable and often poignant. There’s enough going on just below the surface to keep the reader actively engaged in each character’s plight. This is not an easy story to tell, but it is told exceedingly well.
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Ness’s novel is the way he uses classical elements of horror to tell a story about the horrors of loss. Utilizing the tropes of the classic horror story, Ness allows Conor to confront his greatest fears and come to grips with his own terrible reality. It’s nuanced, layered, and very, very real.
This is a book worth reading. Definitely one of the best books of 2011. Get your hands on a copy.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Candlewick: 2011. Library copy.