A Monster Calls: Review and reflection

Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

What can I say about a book like this? Beautiful and awful are two words that come to mind, but neither do justice to the power of A Monster Calls.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old so isolated by suffering that he’s become practically invisible to the world around him. Conor’s mother has cancer, and despite her cheery reassurances, the latest round of chemo does not seem to be going well. Conor’s father departed years ago for a new life with a new wife and baby in America, and Conor lives alone with his mother in a small English town, where he attends school in a fog of despair and loneliness.

At night, though, the nightmares start. Until one night, Conor is visited by a monster — a giant creature formed from the yew tree that Conor can see from his bedroom window. The monster seems like a creature from hell, bent on destruction and threatening to eat Conor — but what it wants is a story. The monster tells Conor its conditions: The monster will tell Conor three different stories, and then it will be Conor’s turn to tell the monster a story, but it must be the truth. Conor knows which story the monster wants from him, and it’s the one thing he absolutely does not want to give voice to.

The monster isn’t all that it seems, and as the story-telling proceeds, the monster becomes the voice of reason and honesty for Conor. Through the monster, Conor is forced to confront his own rage and sorrow, the fact that belief in something — anything — matters, and the subjective nature of terms like “good” and “evil”.

The illustrations in A Monster Calls are stark and glorious. Jim Kay’s black and white inks are stunning — scary and bleak, portraying the monster as otherworldly and frightening, yet also as something natural that seems to belong in the mundane world of garden sheds, grandfather clocks, and schoolyards.

I don’t know that I can really articulate my feelings about this book without going off on a personal tangent. I know that I have certain emotional triggers in books, and A Monster Calls hits all of  the most powerful ones for me.

When I was eleven, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After four years of struggle, illness, and suffering, she died at the young age of forty-four. I was fifteen at the time, and although many years have passed and for the most part I don’t actively think about those years any longer, the emotions still lurk below the surface, never far away. Reading A Monster Calls brought my experiences from those years right back to me.

Conor is overwhelmed by rage — a rage that literally destroys whatever is in its path. All-consuming too is his guilt, a guilt that fuels his nightmares and drives him further and further from the people around him. He goes through the motions of a normal kid’s life, but it’s as if he’s an alien in the midst of humans. His experiences and inner life are so separate, so “other”, that it’s no wonder the kids at his school seem to see right through him. He’s scared for his mother, but he’s also scared for himself. He wants to keep her with him, but he wants her to stop suffering. He’s angry, he’s sad, and he just has no idea what to do with all of the emotions that threaten to engulf him at any second.

I get it. The scariness of watching the parent you count on turn into someone who needs protection. The helplessness of seeing a good and kind person suffer — and seeing that person worry more about her child’s well-being than her own. Being on the receiving end of well-intentioned reassurances that cannot possibly come true. It’s awful and it’s painful and it’s a reminder, especially to a child, of just how little in life can be controlled.

So yes, I read A Monster Calls and could barely breathe by the end. Reading Conor’s story was an instant and visceral reminder of my own experiences during the terrible years of my mother’s illness. The book feels real and true. It’s not a soapy melodrama, but an honest look at the messy emotions that are bundled up in loss and grief.

In spare but lovely prose, Patrick Ness captures all of this and more, and the illustrations are stunningly perfect. A Monster Calls is an award winning children’s book, geared for ages 12 and up, but it’s certainly something that adults should seek out as well.

My 10-year-old, having seen me absorbed by this book all week, has asked if I’d read it to him when I finished. I think he’s mostly fascinated by the artwork — understandably so. I hate to turn down a request for a book. As someone who always read “up” (grabbing whatever books my older sister was reading whenever she wasn’t looking), I don’t usually pay too much attention to recommended age ranges for reading materials. And yet, I don’t think my kiddo is really ready for something like this yet. It’s one thing to read about loss and grief in a fantasy setting such as Harry Potter — quite another to read about a boy going through a horrible loss in a real, recognizable world. I do think I’d like him to read A Monster Calls eventually — but perhaps in a few years, when he’s ready to read it on his own and really be prepared to think and reflect about Conor’s experiences.

According to the Author’s Note, the characters and premise of this story were created by the author Siobhan Dowd, who herself died from cancer before she was able to bring the concept to fruition. Patrick Ness was asked to take her initial concepts and turn them into a book, and he has done so in way that feels like both a beautiful achievement on its own and a lovely tribute to Siobhan Dowd. A Monster Calls is quite an accomplishment on so many levels, and all I can say is that it shouldn’t be missed.