Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

a_monster_callsThe monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth. 

A Monster Calls is the story of thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley, whose mother is undergoing treatment for cancer. His mother’s terminal illness provides a stark backdrop for Conor’s story, and the reason for the appearance of the ‘monster’ at his bedroom window.

This book is as beautiful as it is harrowing.

It is a story that centres around the pain of losing someone you love to terminal illness. Patrick Ness is credited as stating that A Monster Calls is a story “about loss, but also the fear of loss, and there’s not a person in the world – young or old – who hasn’t experienced that.” (Link)

This is a story about grief, about guilt, and about the importance of admitting the truth. It is about facing your monsters: the real ones at your window, and the ones of your nightmares.

Rating: 5 out of 5!

art by Jim Kay

art by Jim Kay

The monster in this case takes the form of a giant yew tree, and Patrick Ness strongly links this figure to the mythological Green Man, who is predominant in British folklore. Although he is gigantic, demanding and pretty scarily depicted by Jim Kay’s illustrations, the monster does not scare Conor. Not one bit. How could a mere monster scare Conor when his nightmare is so terrifying it could not possibly be put into words?

But that is what the monster wants. The monster tells Conor that it will share with him three stories, and after it is done, Conor must tell it the truth.

The use of the monster’s stories within the greater novel works beautifully. Whilst all seem unrelated (except for the presence of the yew tree), by the end of the novel Ness clearly demonstrates how the stories have influenced Conor, how they are teaching him something new and important about life.

“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.”

Like the characters in the stories the ‘monster’ tells, Conor is more than just what he appears. He is both good and bad, strong and weak, insightful and oblivious. Conor is real: a strong multi-dimensional character whom it is easy to feel empathy and sympathy for. My heart broke for poor Conor, for all of the Conors out in the world – those who have to cope (often alone) with the pain of watching someone you love slowly fade away.

Every time an adult refused to punish Conor for his actions (some of them truly horrid), I wanted to reach in and shake them. All Conor wanted was a semblance of life being normal again, and his acting out was the loudest cry for help I have ever read. Here was a boy whose world was falling apart, and no one was admitting it. I just wanted someone, one of the adults, to do something. They spent so much of the novel tiptoeing around Conor, when what he really needed was a firm, guiding hand.

You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.

Conor was so real to my mind, and that was part of what made this novel so amazing.

The story of A Monster Calls does not just reside within the pages of the book, it reaches out, grabs a hold of your own heart, and twists. As Patrick Ness said, everyone has experienced loss of one form or another, and everyone feels the pain that Conor feels. I could see aspects of myself in Conor. I could see echoes of my own loss, my own heartache, and even two months after reading the novel, I can still feel it imprinted on my soul (no exaggerations!).

art by Jim Kay

art by Jim Kay

The illustrations by Jim Kay were perfectly suited to the story that unfolded, and I can’t understand why anyone would want to purchase the copy without them.  At times I felt that I had to pause in my reading, just so that I could absorb the accompanying illustration. The pairing of Siobhan Dowd’s original idea, Patrick Ness’s beautiful words, and Jim Kay’s imaginative illustrations are part of what make this novel so amazing and captivating.

In fact, there was not a single aspect of this book that I did not like. (Except, perhaps, the fact that it tore at my heart and made me cry…)

I would strongly recommend this book as something that should be read, by everyone, no matter their age. I would, however, advise caution. This is the kind of book that will have an emotional impact on anyone who reads it, but especially on anyone who has a family member suffering from a terminal illness. Read A Monster Calls with care, but read it.

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. “When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 

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1 Comment

Filed under Amazed, Book Review, Books, Books for adults, Books for Children, Fantasy, Ranting, Reading, YA Books

One response to “Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

  1. ej2birches

    I agree wholeheartedly with your review! It was such a beautifully written story and the illustrations added so much to the story. I loved it and could not put it down till it was finished, despite silently weeping over many of the pages. I would not want to read the version of the book sold without the illustrations. And although at first I was worried about a monster that was a Yew tree, because he was such a wonderful being, I can once again face, the 14 yew trees growing in my garden!

    Reading your review about this wonderful book brought tears to my eyes again. While I would also encourage others to read this book, your caution is very wise: the “emotional impact on anyone who reads it, but especially on anyone who has a family member suffering from a terminal illness” may well be too much for some.

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