By KATIE STOCKDALE
Patrick Ness begins A Monster Calls by explaining how he was asked to write the novel after celebrated author Siobhan Dowd passed away before she could write it. Ness stresses that he wrote a story he thought Siobhan would like, not a story that mimics her style. We will never know if Siobhan would have liked the story, but it is one of the most poignant and moving novels of the past decade.
The novel explores the concept of crushing reality and our ability to live with ourselves through the life of 13 year-old, Conor O’Malley. Conor is at a rough point in his life; his dad left so long ago that he can’t remember what it was like when he was around, and his mom has been battling cancer for a year.
To make things worse, he’s bullied at school and everyone (even his old friends), treats him differently because of the news. Yet despite this, Conor battles on. When his mother feels too tired or is too sick, he makes dinner and does the dishes and takes out the trash and cleans up. He makes sure he gets to school on time. He ignores his recurring nightmare, the same one he’s had every night since his mother fell ill.
That is, until a different nightmare arrives at his window.
This nightmare is an ancient force of nature, and it offers Conor a deal. It will visit him four times. It will tell Conor three stories, and then on it’s last visit, it will require something serious: the truth.
Ness does a wonderful job exploring how a child processes and accepts the concept of horrible sickness and even death in regards to their parent. Ness layers this complexity by removing the support system of a second parent; Conor’s father has moved to a different country to remarry and start a new family. The only other family Conor has is his grandmother, someone he doesn’t connect with and someone who he thinks he doesn’t need.
In isolating Conor, Ness creates a highly charged atmosphere that the reader confronts alongside Conor. He has to literally face the nightmares and monsters of our world: illness, death and abandonment. He faces the uncertainty of his future the only way he can: by believing that his mother will get better.
And yet this tenuous belief begins to wear on him as does the loneliness he feels. Ness movingly shows how silence can hurt just as much as words. Conor is isolated physically at home, his mother is too sick to be a companion, his father is gone, and at school where no one really pays attention to him. He’s also isolated because he feels that no one else can understand what he is going through, a very relatable sentiment.
Conor doesn’t realize that the people in his life can understand and help him. Paradoxically, he has to get angry before he can accept help, and it is through this journey that the reader comes to know Conor. The reader goes through the novel with Conor, and Ness does a wonderful job of capturing the emotional rollercoaster that comes along with illness.
There are moments of the story that teach lessons, and often those lessons are not straightforward. There are moments full of injustice, when I wanted to enter the novel in Conor’s defense. And there are moments full of tears, heart-wrenching and yet beautiful, when the complex and many layered responses to loss are examined.
Ness describes a moment when the tension overtakes the characters: “She kicked forward through the rubbish almost as if she didn’t even see it. Conor backed away from her quickly, stumbling over the ruins of the settee. He kept a hand up to protect himself, expecting blows to lands any moment – But she wasn’t coming for him. She walked right past him, her face twisted in tears, the moaning spilling out of her again. She went to the display cabinet, the only thing remaining upright in the room. And she grabbed it by one side – And pulled hard on it once – Twice – And a third time. Sending it crashing to the floor with a final sounding crunch.”
This is not a light-hearted story. It is deep, emotional, and thought-provoking. It won’t do much good as a pick-me-up, but it will serve to show our broken world in another light. If you get drawn into reflective stories the way I do, it won’t take you long to finish it. But just because the reading time is short, doesn’t mean the book won’t stick with you long after you’ve read it.
A new way to experience Conor’s story is coming up: The movie will be released in October with a screenplay written by Patrick Ness. The director is Juan Antonio Bayona, starring Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Lewis MacDougall as Conor. So step into Conor’s world, experience his nightmares, and read on.
Katie Stockdale can be reached at email@example.com.