A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, illustrated by Jim Kay) is, quite simply, the best book I’ve read this year and also my favorite book of the year. If I only convince you to read one book this year, make it this one. It is brilliant and unforgettable and I don’t think I’m capable of doing it justice, but I’m going to try anyway.
The nightmares are nothing new to Conor—he’s had them for months now, ever since his mother got sick. But the monster who comes for him and calls his name one night, well, the monster is new to Conor. Not that the monster itself is new. The monster is ancient and timeless. And it has come for a reason.
Here is what will happen, Conor O’Malley, the monster continued, I will come to you again on further nights.
Conor felt his stomach clench, like he was preparing for a blow.
And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before.
Conor blinked. Then blinked again. “You’re going to tell me stories?”
Indeed, the monster said.
“Well-” Conor looked around in disbelief. “How is that a nightmare?”
Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.
“That’s what teachers always say,” Conor said. “No one believes them, either.”
And when I have finished my three stories, the monster said, as if Conor hadn’t spoken, you will tell me a fourth.
Conor squirmed in the monster’s hand. “I’m no good at stories.”
You will tell me a fourth, the monster repeated, and it will be the truth. (p. 35-36 of ARC)
What follows is a magnificent story that is both straightforward and layered, direct and subtle. The layers to this story are so rewarding, though it’s actually told pretty simply in terms of structure and narration (no dialect or misspellings a la Ness’s awesome Chaos Walking trilogy), and, boy, does it pack an emotional punch. There are some truly devastating moments, heightened by the unflinching narration and the largely chronological structure—a directness that I think makes the story even more powerful. And yet despite this simplicity, there is so much depth, so much heart to this story.
Of course, A Monster Calls also has the remarkable backstory of being based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd. And knowing—knowing she died of breast cancer—makes some scenes later in the book even more gutwrenching. The book is further enhanced by Jim Kay’s numerous black and white illustrations, which add to the sense of wonder and magic, and are seamlessly intertwined with Ness’s words.
A Monster Calls is quite different from the Chaos Walking books, plotwise, as well as being quieter and more accessible. But they share a willingness to address big themes with intelligence and honest emotion, instead of sentimentality or a calculated detachment.* And, actually, emotion is what comes to mind first when thinking of A Monster Calls. Not plot, not action, not the lack of those breathtaking Chaos Walking cliffhangers. Instead, I think of how much I love this book. How much I cried while reading it and was still crying even after I turned the last page.** Of the quiet tenderness, the compassion, the humanity that imbues the story, even in Conor’s rawest and angriest state. Of how beautiful and profoundly touching it is. And how glad I am to have read it.
The American edition of A Monster Calls will be published on September 27 by Candlewick Press; the UK edition was published earlier this year by Walker Books.
Book source: requested ARC from Candlewick.
* I just listened to this interview with Ness (after writing the above) and he actually briefly talks about emotion vs. sentiment!
** If you really want a good cry, do what I did and read it while listening to the new Bon Iver album.