Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saving the Best for Last: A Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea of Siobhan Dowd
Candlewick Press (September 2011)
Ages 12 and up

I've waited months to read this book. I even pre-ordered it last July when I first saw the cover and thought, oh yeah, this one does not deceive. I was wrong. It does deceive. But in the very best way possible. A Monster Calls is not a horror story (as the title and cover suggest) so much as a haunting story of grief and denial, clinging and letting go, love and fear. There are so many layers to this book—stories within stories, the collision of the natural with the supernatural, truth and self-deception—it is stunning in its blend of ordinary and unhinged reality.

A Monster Calls unfolds slowly, seeping onto the pages with hypnotic cadence and shadowy, shapeshifting illustrations (beautifully imagined by Jim Kay). The truth of what's happening is revealed over a short span of weeks in the life of thirteen-year-old Conor O'Malley whose mother is nearing the end of her battle with cancer. Bullied and alienated at school, abandoned by his father who left England to start a new life and new family, and forced into the reluctant care of his very ungrandmotherly grandmother, Conor has nightmares. The monster is not one of them. The monster, which takes the shape of a yew tree, doesn't frighten Conor, but it does challenge him.
At last, said the monster. To the matter at hand. The reason I have come walking.
Conor tensed, suddenly dreading what was coming.
Here is what will happen, Conor O'Malley, the monster continued, I will come to you again on further nights.
Conor felt his stomach clench, like he was preparing for a blow.
And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before.
The monster goes on to explain that the fourth tale will be told by Conor. And it will be the truth. The stage is set and the story unfolds, layers deep, alternating between everyday reality and the shadow world of grief, fear and denial. The tales told by the monster have unexpected endings, twisted meanings. Good and evil are not as clear cut as they seem. It's smart, sophisticated writing that does not cheat the reader by spelling everything out.

The language of the monster echoes the ancestral drumbeat of fireside storytelling. It's the perfect vehicle for this sort of tale, where the truth of real life is just too blinding and unacceptable to acknowledge. Instead, it pulses with words and smoldering images that bring to mind the way things look like other (more menacing) things in the dark. The ending is what every writer should be lucky enough to achieve: inevitable, but surprising. Knowing what's coming does nothing to lessen the blow of its impact.

A Monster Calls is self-identified as being for readers aged 12 and up. Many reviewers have categorized it as Young Adult, a strong contender for the Printz; however, I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the Newbery announcement next month. Regardless of where it lands on the shelf, it's a winner through and through.

Source: I cashed in a gift card through mumbletysomethingazon and ordered my copy there because I wasn't going to let it go to waste and fill their coffers with an unused certificate. Otherwise, I would have purchased it from an independent bookseller, which is what I recommend to you.

1 comment:

Charlotte Morganti said...

oooh, great review! Thanks for this.