A Monster Calls is a gorgeously rendered piece of literary art. A compact, powerful novel, the best way I can describe it is Skellig by David Almond meets J.K. Rowling’s “The Tale of Three Brothers” from Tales of Beedle the Bard. This book is a love letter to Siobhan Dowd, a rising YA star who died young of breast cancer. Keeping this (and Patrick Ness‘ exquisite letter about how this book grew out of an idea of hers at the beginning of the book) in the back of my mind made the story all the more tragic.
Conor’s mother is sick, but he doesn’t want to think about that. He has other things on his plate- like the kids at school who wait for their teacher’s back to be turned and then attack, both physically and with words, cruelly taunting him about his mother’s illness. And now there is a monster that comes to him in the night- a monster that seems to be made of the Yew tree in his backyard and claims to have three stories to tell him. When he is finished telling his stories, then Conor must tell the fourth.
I imagined the monster as the faun from Pan’s Labyrinth, monstrous and humanoid but made of a tree, and was rewarded by Jim Kay’s eerie illustrations, which basically depict him in the same way:
Like the faun, you’re unsure if he is a monster with bad intentions or a somewhat aloof and frightening guardian angel. His stories do nothing to clarify this. The tales told by the monster are folkloric and allegorical: a prince who runs away from an evil step-mother with the baker’s daughter; a preacher who begs an apothecary for help when his daughters fall ill; an invisible man who wishes to be seen.
Though the stories seem straightforward and traditional, the monster reveals a twist in each one that is unsettling. The function of the stories is to show that good and bad- like right and wrong- have little to do with truth, which lies somewhere in the hazy gray space between these opposites. All of this helps Conor tell his story, which allows him to forgive himself and experience catharsis. You will be experiencing catharsis too, by this I mean bawling your eyes out.
The story of the invisible man, and how Conor internalizes it, was one of the most effective sections of the book. In this story the two narratives- the midnight fairytale magic realism section(monster) and the stark daytime reality section (bullies)- blend, ending in a vicious attack that leaves Conor visible to everyone in his school, but not in the way he wanted.
I have never felt sadder for a character than I felt for Conor. His beloved mother is dying, his grandmother is cold and bossy, his father lives in America and can barely stick around for a weekend, he’s being targeted by bullies and he’s turned away from his only friend, Lily, because she told everyone about his mother’s illness in the first place. There are lots of beautiful and sad observances about grief and love, but the bullying stuff was just as powerful to me. Heavy stuff, yes, but somehow after finishing the book I didn’t feel weighed down. Such is the genius of Patrick Ness that you are able to experience extreme emotion and catharsis just as Conor does, and walk away from the book not totally depressed. In lesser hands the book would feel melodramatic or depress you so much you would be unable to get out of bed for days.
So who will read this book? Children’s literature nuts like myself will of course adore it, but it is a dark story that will make the reader feel dark things. Not all children are ready for this at the same age. It is middle grade, although it has that rare quality of truly classic stories that seem to exist outside an age range. I’m not sure it would alleviate grief, but it strikes me as a great book for angry children. Anger is addressed extremely well in the book, as is grief, guilt, and absolute first class storytelling.
A Monster Calls is available now in hard cover from Candlewick Press.