Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Monster Calls

“Stories are wild creatures,” the monster said. “When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”  Indeed. “A Monster Calls” (Candlewick Press, 2011), by Patrick Ness, wrought all sorts of havoc with this reader’s emotions.
            At seven minutes after midnight, Conor O’Malley awakes from his nightmare—the nightmare, the one that began haunting him after his mother began cancer treatments—to find a monster at his bedroom window. The monster—part giant, part yew tree, ancient and wild—appears every night at 12:07. It tells Conor three stories, parables really, that overturn expectations. The good prince does a terrible thing. Innocent girls die.  Stories don’t always have happy endings. And after the third tale is told, the monster demands the most difficult thing from Conor: the truth.
            “A Monster Calls” is an extraordinary book about coming to terms with the impending death of a loved one.  Conor knows, deep down, that his mother is dying, but he is in denial, believing each new treatment to be the one that will save her. The monster guides Conor as the boy deals with a father who lives far away with his new family, his increasing isolation at school, his terrible anger, and a difficult grandmother who loves her daughter with the same kind of ferocity that Conor feels for his mother. Each character, even the bully who makes Conor’s life even more hellish, is drawn with care and compassion. The monster may be the best character of them all.
            “A Monster Calls” is also a beautiful book to look at, with illustrations by Jim Kay. Kay’s interpretation of the monster is both haunting and menacing, and the images work perfectly with the text.  
Ness, author of the terrific Chaos Walking trilogy, based “A Monster Calls” on the final story of idea of Siobhan Dowd, whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself. (I reviewed two of Dowd’s books, “Bog Child” and “Solace of the Road.” If you have not yet read anything by this amazing author, I highly recommend them.) In an author’s note, Ness writes that he felt as if Dowd had handed him a baton. “And now it’s time to hand the baton on to you,” Ness writes. “Stories don’t end with the writers, however many started the race. Here’s what Siobhan and I came up with. So go. Run with it. Make trouble.”
Read this book with a box of tissues.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, January 22, 2012 edition of The News-Gazette. 

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