The 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 essentially a short story. It’s only a smidgen longer than 200 pages, but boy, does it pack a serious emotional punch.
You’ll find it in the children’s aisle of your local bookstore, lurking among the Jacqueline Wilson tomes and Famous Five paperbacks. This, though, is a children’s book in the same that a classic Roald Dahl or a Philip Pullman is, that is to say that it is transcendent of labels. This is a book that everyone can take something from, and I truly hope that people, no matter their age, allow it to work its mournful magic.
We meet Conor, an introverted and lonely boy, as his mother is dying of of cancer. Not only that, but he’s struggling with people’s new perceptions of him as ‘the boy whose mother has cancer’, the idea of living with a grandmother who seems so different from him, and a father who hopped off to America to make good with his new family. As he tries his best to avoid coming to terms with what is going on around him, Conor is visited by a monster. The monster, who is part ancient yew tree and wholly otherworldly wants to tell Conor stories, and in return, he wants Conor to speak the truth. His truth.
If there’s anything I love, then its a story within a story, and A Monster Calls presents a perfect example. Every time the tree visits, Conor is told a new story. Each of the strange parables are lesson for Conor, and step on the lonely path through guilt and grief to acceptance. The stories are a brave metaphorical choice to make, and one that could have easily have come across as heavy handed in their symbolism. I’m a huge fan of Ness’ other work, but the writing in this book is so beautifully simple, so courageous, and so sure footed. This is the sort of book that you hand down to your children and recommend zealously to the people who you love the most.
I’ve been saying this a lot recently, but it’s really hard to write a constructive review about a book that you feel passionately about. As it is, I have zero criticism, constructive or otherwise to make about this book. I loved the way that the tree’s unusual stories slithered from the page and took Conor and I somewhere else, and I thought that the small cast of characters were all impossibly nuanced considering the length of the book. Jim Kay’s dark and melancholic illustrations are a stroke of genius: a match made in heaven with Ness’ writing style and absolutely worth buying a paper copy for.
This book has a lot to grapple with. Themes of grief, responsibility, guilt and loneliness are the backbone of the story. The sadness cuts through the heart of this book like a knife, but in the midst of everything going on, it is also profoundly hopeful. The irony of A Monster Calls is that it isn’t about a physical monster at all. Its not scary in a traditional sense, and it won’t make you look over your shoulder or run up the stairs like the devil is on your heels. But it is about the the feelings that live deep down inside of us, the memories that haunt us, and the immovable obstacles that we sometimes have to face. This book tells you that although these things can be scarier than anything from a horror movie, there is hope for us all to move forward.
I hope that Siobhan O’Dowd would be proud of what her story has become.
- Author: Patrick Ness
- Publication Date: 27th September 2011
- Publisher: Walker Books
- Pages: 216
- Rating: 5/5
- In short: Unspeakably and indescribably moving.