From Tots to Teens, StarMag, 3rd July 2011
IN a radio interview, Patrick Ness said that he wept during the writing of A Monster Calls (Walker Books, 215 pages, ISBN: 978-1406334906). “If I’m writing anything that’s this difficult and I’m not upset, then I’m not doing it right,” he said. “If I’m not crying why would I think anybody else will be moved?”
When I received my review copy of the book, I read the last couple of pages and found myself simply blubbing. I then read the book all the way through and, at the end, I cried again. Ness has obviously done it right.
A Monster Calls was a book that the Irish author Siobhan Dowd wanted to write. She had made notes, had imagined the characters, planned the premise, written a beginning. But Dowd died before she could write the book. She had cancer and she was only 47.
When asked, by Mariella Frostrup on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme, whose voice he had written the book in, his or Dowd’s, Ness said, “I came up with the story’s voice, I hope. There is the voice of the boy and the voice of the yew tree. Those were the voices I was looking for rather than mine or Siobhan’s.”
The yew tree is the monster who calls “just after midnight. As they do.” It is a larger than life entity, a giant green man, a primeval force. It is life and death; past, present and future; terrible and true, dreadful and magnificent. Its voice is arrogant and wise, impatient and compassionate. Like life, it is ruthless. Yet it offers solace too.
Conor, the boy, needs solace. He is 13 years old, scared and lonely, and filled with guilt and rage. Conor’s mother has cancer and she’s dying. What does such knowledge do to a 13-year-old? What feelings and thoughts and wishes does it provoke?
Conor is trapped by the truth. He wishes for release, but dreads it. He wants to be happy but is afraid of its price.
The monster comes to Conor. Its purpose is to tell Conor three stories. When it has done that, Conor must tell the monster a story in return and it must be the truth.
The monster’s size and power, strangeness and intensity are intimidating (Jim Kay’s moody, inky illustrations capture the creature’s size and potency, and also the darkness and weight of the situation) but it is its knowledge of Conor’s secret that strikes the deepest fear in the boy’s heart. The secret must be spoken. The secret is Conor’s truth, the truth that the monster seeks. It is the truth that will set Conor free.
This was a difficult book to read. Ness portrays with stark honesty the pain of dying, the pain of knowing that your child will soon be left alone and bereft, the pain of knowing that your mother is slipping away, and most of all, the pain of not being able to talk about it, of being denied the chance to grief and to share the grief, of not being able to rage and rant and say it isn’t fair.
The scenes between Conor and his mum – doing an awkward dance around one another, hinting at the truth, deliberately misunderstanding, denying the obvious, pretending it’s all going to be okay – are heavy with sorrow and dread. They were the hardest to read because, as the reader, you feel so much for parent and child that you can’t help but share their pain and denial.
You enter into the story, you feel Conor’s desperation and hope. You know there’s no miracle cure but then you think that there might be and his mum will be all right after all. That’s the way it is with all good stories. You live them, get involved and get carried along and away, quite against your own will, quite against logic and good sense, and quite against what you know will happen next. Don’t you keep hoping that word will get to Romeo in time? That Judas will have a change of heart? That Jo will accept Laurie’s proposal?
You know the end but the stories trick you into thinking that the outcome may change; the characters are so real that you think they might break free of the fate already written for them and choose another path, a different future.
Books about death and dying, about grief and bereavement, especially if meant for children, are hard to read, but, I imagine, harder still to write. Most adults are still leery about children’s books that reveal too much about real life. They believe children should be protected from anything unpleasant – as if life itself is not frequently rather painful. Life isn’t about happy or sad. Life is happy and sad. You can’t write honestly about any life, you can’t tell any story and tell just the good bits or just the bad bits. Telling the truth and reading the truth might hurt, but it also heals.