A Monster Calls
By Patrick Ness
Walker Books, 2011. 216 pgs. Young Adult
Conor. Someone is calling his name. He was having a nightmare – the nightmare he has every night since the day his mother started treatments – but the calling is not part of the screaming, or the wind, or the darkness. The caller is a monster who looks like the yew tree from the churchyard on the hill near his house. This monster is not frightening but old, strange, and wild. He says there will be four stories. He’s come to tell the first three and help Conor tell the fourth: the truth. It turns out that knowing the truth might be more dangerous than the thought of living with his grandma, being bullied at school, or worse, the nightmare itself.
Since I am a fan of Patrick Ness I first read this book when it came out in 2011. In preparation for seeing the movie, I reread it, and it made just as powerful an impression. As YA author Siobhan Dowd’s last idea for a book and Patrick Ness’s tribute to Dowd, who died of cancer at age 47, it’s uncannily fitting. It seems natural that the stunning illustrations by Jim Kay (artist of the illustrated Harry Potter editions) reflect the beauty of the inside as well.
A contemporary novel at its core, A Monster Calls is about thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley whose mother is losing her battle with cancer. Each of the stories the monster tells, set historically in Conor’s own backyard, is brilliantly complex, and not at all what Conor wants to hear. Nothing is black or white, which results in an uneasy journey to accepting the truth of his life, one that is raw, deep, and above all honest. In a narrative which includes a dramatic, commonplace disease like cancer, it would be easy for it to venture unawares into melodramatic or sentimental territory. But A Monster Calls steers far clear of it. It's a heartbreaking, real and moving depiction of grief, loss, and guilt. I recommend reading the book first of course, but the film adaptation is excellent as well. Just don't forget to bring tissues!