A Monster Calls (Novel)
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd (original concept), Jim Kay (illustrations)
Publisher: Walker Books
Release Date: May 5, 2011
Awards: The Carnegie Medals and Kate Greenaway Medals for writing and illustration, the British Children's Book of the Year, the Red House Children's Book Award, and the Kitschies Red Tentacle award for speculative fiction.
I hadn't even realize this was a book until I saw the trailer for the upcoming film (limited release this past October, wide release in December/January). To be fair, it's also not a book that I would initially notice. For one thing, it's a children's novel. At a little over 200 pages, it's barely longer than some of the novellas I had previously reviewed. Also, I usually read speculative fiction, but despite me tagging this book as a "fantasy," this is probably more "regular" fiction. It just so happens that the modern reality of our protagonist includes a monster.
A Monster Calls tells the story of 13-year-old Conor O'Malley, whose mother ish cancer (they never say the word "cancer" in the entire book, but it's pretty obvious). Conor has been suffering from a horrific nightmare for awhile now, and when the book opens he finds himself visited by an actual monster that transforms from a yew tree outside a church near their home. The monster explains to Conor that he will tell him three stories, and then Conor will tell the monster one of his own: his story, the nightmare he has been suffering all this time. Besides dealing with the possible hallucination/dream of seeing an enormous tree-monster, Conor has to face bullies at school, the constant "understanding" of his teachers, the empty platitudes and unreliability of his father, and the unflappable severity of his grandmother. As the monster's stories progress, and his mother's illness continues to affect his life, Conor is forced to face the truth: his truth.
WARNING: RANT INCOMING. My fear when starting this book was that it would fall into an awful genre of books that I call "emotional exploitation." These are titles that use sickness (usually almost always cancer) as a cheap tool to fabricate unearned ethos from the audience. These "dying" or "inspirational" characters are designed to falsely cater to a reader's emotions, making them susceptible to the author's hackneyed concepts of "truth." These books are laden with pseudo-psalms and psychobabble quotes passed off as meaningful gospels on the nature of relationships, tragedy, hope, and life itself. And they can go jump off a damn bridge. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein and anything by Mitch Albom falls squarely into this category of tripe schlock. And hey, nothing against shlock: I'm a sucker for bad movies and formulaic fantasy novels. But I don't pass them off as high art with something important to say. END RANT.
A Monster Calls constantly runs the risk of getting close to these books, but it differentiates itself in several key ways. First, it doesn't wallow in its own melodrama. Second, the story doesn't focus on the tragedy of the mother's sickness, but rather on the impact it has on Conor and his family. This is Conor's story, and in that way it's selfish, and the book makes no apologies for it. Finally, it's real in a way the Steins and Alboms of the world are not. Here, people lie, both to themselves and to others. People get hurt and hurt others. People rage, repent, and retreat into themselves. Tragedy doesn't always make people sad and wistful and suddenly wise to the world like these other books try to make it seem. Sometimes there are no great truths or important lessons to learn. "You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons?" the monster asks at one point in the book. "You think I have coming walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?” A Monster Calls uses its fantasy to show us reality: that sometimes, tragedy turns people monstrous.
There is a running theme throughout the book that I adored, and that was Conor's constant desire for punishment. To him, punishment is the acknowledgement not only that he exists, but that what he's feeling is in fact wrong and that the world somehow follows a perfect pattern. His mother's illness has thrown him from the comforting world of cause and effect, and this new reality weighs him down with guilt and anger, to the point that his psyche has created this monster. Or has it? Is the monster real? Wisely, Ness leaves it vague. By the end of the book, the answer isn't important.
So what am I saying with all of this, exactly? I'm saying that this book is something special. I loved it to pieces, and I regret reading it as an ebook because I've missed the chance to see these gorgeous and creepy illustrations in their full-page splendor. A Monster Calls will be a book that stays with me, and that I see myself revisiting throughout my life whenever I need a bit of perspective, or a desire to be something more monstrous.