“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”
I have pushed Patrick Ness’s bleak dystopian Chaos Walking trilogy on just about every reader I know for the past couple of years. You don’t like science fiction? I don’t give a damn, and why are we even friends, anyways? Whereas the Chaos Walking books read like 1,000 pages of tears and anxiety attacks (and I mean that in the very best way), his 2011 A Monster Calls is a sombre, graphic exploration of guilt and loss adapted from Siobhan Dowd‘s final offering, unable to be completed due to her death.
The first time the monster visits thirteen-year-old Conor at seven minutes past midnight he is not frightened, but relieved that it is not the same monster he has been dreaming (nightmaring?) of since his mother first started her cancer treatments. This monster is a manifestation of the ancient mythological Green Man, and it has come to tell Conor three stories. In exchange, the monster wants one thing: the truth. As the monster’s visits continue, its stories of destruction and rage become indistinguishable from Conor’s own violent outbursts in reaction to his mother’s rapidly deteriorating condition, so that the reader is left to wonder whether the monster is real or if it is just a fevered imagining of Conor’s disturbed and grief-stricken mind.
One thing Patrick Ness is really, really good at is making people, namely me, cry. This book is no exception to that rule. Unlike the heart attack-inducing Chaos Walking books, this is a slow and dream-like wandering through the nature of right and wrong, good and bad, and, above all else, grief and letting go. It reads like a classic fairy tale, with its simple yet lyrical language, moral murkiness and violence and the classic use of the magical number three. In a way this felt like a literary parallel to Pan’s Labyrinth, in that it depicts a young person dealing with extreme emotional trauma retreating into a fantasy world in order to cope. In both stories there is enough evidence for both emotional breakdown and actual magical interference to argue both sides, and in both cases the questionable reality of the magic has no impact on the power of the story. Regardless of whether or not the monster is real (and I believe that he is), the simple, painful wisdom he imparts is powerful and heartbreaking. I mean it when I say heartbreaking. I was pretty glad my room-mate was at her boyfriend’s house because I was howling. HOWLING. My cat didn’t know what the hell was going on.
But wait, there’s more! This isn’t just a book with text and stuff. There are ILLUSTRATIONS. Really insanely amazing ones. Jim Kay’s incredible illustrations, an amalgam of print relief work and pen and ink drawings, run the gamut from subtle sprinklings of yew berries to two-page spreads full of darkness and despair. A lot of the illustrations have a Gothic feel to them–the monster is so enormous and frightening that he always dwarfs poor Conor, worldlessly depicting how powerless Conor feels in the face of his guilt and grief. This book is a perfect example of getting an illustrated novel right–the illustrations don’t just depict what is going on, they contribute to the story itself, compounding on the dark and ominous atmosphere that pervades the narrative.
I honestly have nothing bad to say about this book. Fans of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books may be disappointed by the comparatively slow pacing of A Monster Calls, but I don’t think anyone could deny that this is a really, really good, powerful, and haunting story. I can almost guarantee that if you read it you will spontaneously tear up for no apparent reason several days after reading it.
For music, I chose Mirah, this time with “Nobody Has to Stay.” I think this song perfectly reflects the melancholy of letting go in order to heal that is central to this story, because nothing says “I am crying and sad” like a string section.
Where I got it: Kidsbooks in Vancouver, BC.