Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

 Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this remarkable novel Patrick Ness mixes the supernatural with an emotionally grounded story about an adolescent boy dealing with his seriously ill mother. The result is a powerful story about grief and loss that works in an almost cathartic manner. You feel somewhat purged and cleansed by the time you reach the dramatic ending. A Monster Calls feels so real and authentic that it’s a testament to how words on a page can shake you to the core.

It’s not often that the promotional superlatives used on a book’s jacket match its contents, but Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls proves to be the exception to the rule. From page one the reader is utterly enveloped in the story’s dark and melancholy atmosphere, which recalls the brooding work of the Bronte sisters, especially Emily’s Wuthering Heights, with its harrowing scenes of the supernatural. The miracle of A Monster Calls is that Ness perfectly balances this mood of nightmares and supernatural visitations with an emotionally complex story about a boy coping with his seriously ill mother. This is a novel that very much balances the dark imaginings that come to us in the night against the more seemingly rational world of the waking day. Ness marries the two into a palpably real story about fear, guilt and grief.

There is so much that could have gone wrong with this monster story. In another writer’s hands, the use of a supernatural being as a poignant enlarger of the truth of the human condition could have completely misfired. But Patrick Ness has the power to make everything in his novel feel real and true to life. The reader fully experiences the story and feels shaken by the end of it.

The novel centres around Connor O’Malley, a young man who we learn in the first pages is going through some sort of traumatic period. The house he lives in with his mother over looks a churchyard, and in the churchyard there is an old yew tree. Connor has nightmares in which the tree turns itself into a monster that visits him. The trouble is, Connor can’t quite figure out if the monster is a dream or if it is real. Connor is also living a nightmare in his waking life, as his mother is seriously ill. This is putting so much stress on him that he is not fully conscious of just how deeply it is affecting him, causing him to even lie to himself about the poor state of his mother’s health. At school he is bullied and accused of being withdrawn and almost invisible. 

The monster, whether real or imagined, begins to help Connor deal with his problems by telling him stories and acting as a kind of teacher and guide. He forces Connor to face unpleasant and complex truths about himself, culminating in a cathartic confession. The monster makes Connor speak a personal truth too painful to put into words. But once the words are uttered, Connor is released from a degree of his suffering.

A Monster Calls is brilliantly imagined and executed. Every page has the ring of truth. You wonder how Patrick Ness came to write such an authentic story about death and loss. (The story is based on an idea by writer Siobhan Dowd who died of cancer.) While the novel doesn’t read as autobiographical in any sense, the characters and situations are fully alive and three-dimensional. This is a deeply moving story that has the power to touch your innermost being.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd). Published by Walker Books Ltd. ISBN: 9781406339345  RRP: $16.95