A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – Review

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Cover Photographs copyright 2012 by Getty Images.


A Monster Calls 
by Patrick Ness, published by Candlewick in 2011, winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration and the Carnegie Medal for Writing.

The book begins with a note reminiscent of John Green’s note on fiction from The Fault in Our Stars. Patrick Ness addresses the reader and tells the short and sad tale of Siobhan Dowd who died young, at age 47, of breast cancer. Ness has not tried to mimic Dowd’s voice, instead he has been given her ideas and her beginning and he has made trouble, and he has run and had fun with then. This book was inspired by, derived from and is a tribute to Siobhan Dowd, and it is beautiful.

I don’t really know what I was expecting when I picked up this book to read for this month’s theme, Horror. I knew it’s general subject matter, and I was excited because of more monsters as written by Patrick Ness – but it pulled the rug from under my feet. It is not really horror though it is horrific in many ways. This book is an emotionally wrenching tale about the nature of truth, which is really the only monster in this world.

Conor O’Mally has been troubled by nightmares since his mother was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. Daily life is intolerable, as everyone from teachers to bullies treats him as though he were invisible since his mother began chemotherapy, ignoring him is simply easier. However, he remains a good boy, taking care of his mother and himself, but when a monster calls on him his anger, despair and desperation are unleashed. The monster, which embodies a yew tree, pulls him from his bed and says that he will tell Conor three stories, and then Conor must tell the fourth. The fourth story must be the truth, if it is not then Conor will be devoured. So, a little bit of horror with the monster who is fiendish and monster-like in attitude, only, Conor is not afraid of the Yew Tree Monster because he has a much bigger problem, his mother and his own truth.

Conor’s dad now lives in America with a new family. He gets his own breakfast, he has nightmares, he resents his grandmother coming to stay so treats her churlishly, he is bullied at school and only Lily, his classmate, shows sympathy – but he pushes her away. Conor is the sacrificial victim who blames anyone but himself for his misery. And then there is the monster. Horror is piled on horror as the monster visits Conor, telling stories that subtly hold the key to the boy’s emotional turmoil. The atmosphere of the storytelling and the images banish any sense of reality. Is the Yew Tree Monster an apparition or do monsters really come calling when they are needed?

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The heavily textured monochromatic illustrations by Jim Kay are surreal renderings of Conor’s inner chaos. The shifting perspectives alternately create intimacy and distance and their dense shading and jagged edges symbolize the protean and harsh wildness of nature, of life and of the yew tree. For me the illustrations reminded me of Frankenstein with their splashes of white lightening illuminating the depths that humans are capable of here on earth.  Ness brilliantly captures Conor’s horrifying emotional ride as his mother’s inevitable death approaches. In an ideal pairing of text and illustration, the novel is liberally laced with Kay’s evocatively textured pen-and-ink artwork, which surrounds the text, adding softness in quiet, sad moments and rushing at the readers with a nightmarish intensity at moments of tension.

I left this book an emotional wreck and then immediately went through a whole box of tissue,grabbed a cookie and delved into Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk – which did a fairly good job at cheering me up. However, the story is still lingering in my stomach. I suppose all horror should. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been touched by cancer and this book’s delicacy and bluntness with the grief that surrounds this disease is commendable… for lack of a better word? To say the least?

I was speaking with my Professor, Judith Saltman, and she said that she’d given this book to friends dealing with cancer. She immediately followed this statement with a brief musing on whether or not that was tactful or a good idea and, honestly, I don’t know. I think I would too, and I’d give it to family and I’d give it to children who have dealt with this issue and… well I’m not much for censorship so I’d let anyone read it at all. I can’t really say who the audience of this book truly is. It is a piece of art to be enjoyed by anyone brave enough to start it.