Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.
A Monster Calls is a novel by Patrick Ness, based on the late Siobhan Dowd’s last book idea. I first heard of this book on a radio show in which they completely butchered the name ‘Siobhan’ (it’s pronounced Shove-orn or Shove-on!). Other than that they described the book beautifully and I must admit that they did do it justice. I’d read Dowd’s A Swift, Pure Cry before, but never any of Patrick Ness’ work. I was worried that Ness would try and imitate Dowd’s voice, however this was quickly put to bed once I actually began reading the novel. The tone of the novel is sharply defined; this is not an imitation, but a unique novel with a clear voice. Indeed, on researching (okay, googling) the novel in order to find an appropriate quote (I really need to start marking quotes in the books I review!) I stumbled upon this quote from Ness himself;
“She [Siobhan] would have set it free, let it grow and change, and so I wasn’t trying to guess what she might have written, I was merely following the same process she would have followed, which is a different thing.”
When I read this book, I was not aware that it was aimed at children (I also found this out upon googling it) – although this makes perfect sense. The novel teaches important life lessons, both for children and more mature audiences, in a way that doesn’t sugar coat or patronise. Conor, our protagonist, is dealing with his mother’s illness. As her condition gets worse, he accidentally calls upon ‘The Monster’ – a humanoid yew tree – for help. ‘The Monster’ and indeed the messages he brings, add an element of magic to the story, as well as providing a moral guide for Conor.
‘The Monster’ is modelled after the Green Man, and indeed names this as one of his many identities. Green Man is a distinctly folkloric and magical motif, with unknown and ancient origins. This is fitting for ‘The Monster’ as the guide. He appears to Conor a total of five times I believe – the original apparition has obvious Dickensian roots, proposing that ‘The Monster’ will tell three stories; however Conor must then tell him a fourth. It is in this last apparition that the lessons Conor has learnt from ‘The Monster’ allow him to tell his own story, and fully accept his situation and emotions. The storytelling involved is highly moral, again reflecting the ancient tropes ‘The Monster’ embodies, but this doesn’t read as some kind of strict rulebook. ‘The Monster’s parables teach Conor -and of course by extension the readers -about the duality of humans, life and the mind; as the quote I’ve used to start this post shows. ‘The Monster’ shows Conor that everything isn’t what it seems, nothing is black and white and that that’s okay. He teaches Conor that his thoughts and feelings are valid and natural, allowing him to tell the final story.
I felt that the book was immensely moving and provides a wonderful yet real take on what it means to handle such heavy circumstances, particularly at such a young age. When I was 13, the age Conor was in the book, my granny underwent a triple bypass heart surgery that went wrong. She was severely ill for an awful long time and a lot of the feelings Ness encapsulates in the book are ones that I had a personal experience with at that age, and have often felt since. I wish I’d had this book then, and it is certainly one I would recommend anyone, but especially older children, read; particularly if they are handling the illness or passing of a loved one. Intensely powerful yet heartwarming, Dowd’s last idea has been executed brilliantly.
See you soon,