Book Title: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking #01)
Author: Patrick Ness
Number of pages: 479
Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee — whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not — stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden — a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.
But how do you escape when your pursuers can hear your every thought?
(re: Goodreads @ The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
– Relationships between protagonists and man and dog are all genuine and platonic. Manchee is the best effing ruddy dog, ever, and I’m sure this foolish man’s best friend will become your favourite character.
– The world isn’t burdened with description as it allows for basic tangible scenery to become fully realised in thought. Follows the first person perspective of an illiterate boy; there will be words made up, misspelled enunciated words, and lots of repetition.
– Basically one long chase scene where the primary antagonist is almost a carbon copy of Terminator.
– Handles the social and human issues with ease; focusing on choice and self-identity in a dehumanized society of power tripping baddies mirroring the novel concept of community.
– An unfortunate cliffhanger that may require the second instalment ready to go.
So stuff happens. And then more stuff happens. Then someone slaps me in the face and I’m like ????? but other things happen. Then someone shoots my leg and as I’m slow to get up, they gun down my knee-cap, too. And then the cycle repeats a few more times until all feels have been exhausted.
And that’s basically The Knife of Never Letting Go in a nutshell notwithstanding all that violent stuff actually happening (or maybe it does, differently).
Never have I read an initial installment for a trilogy where nothing really changes from the first to the last page (re: considering ~500 pages) yet it’s an oscillating thrill-ride of questions, answers, and a goldmine of atmospheric suffocation and tension. Between all the moments I hated and the moments that I relished, there’s something worth buying into.
And if it’s any consolation, I shed some tears. So, that’s worth something I guess.
This and more (~3k words more) under the cut—
Side note: I wrote a companion post (re: Music Monday) where I matched a song to elements of this novel. You can find that post by clicking here.
Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.
“The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.”
You read the synopsis and you think you kind of understand the gist of it. But then you’re either one of two people: those who have read Ness before and those who haven’t—though, in either case, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of ‘whaaaaaaaaat?’ And that’s quite the doozy, actually. The Knife of Never Letting Go is indeed a rollercoaster—I loved it and then hated it and then I loved it some more and then…—well, I’m being put in a pretty peculiar position.
I enjoy it. But, I also hated it–it’s really perplexing actually.
How easy it must have been for Ness to write such a captivating, wild and nuanced goose chase is beyond me. Nothing and everything happens. While there are moments of foreshadowing that are easily prospected, it doesn’t necessary detract from the actual story in the long run because this trilogy manages to encapsulate an array of issues that works for an all-age audience (well, maybe not your four-year-old nephew/niece). Yes, this is science-fiction dystopia but it’s not all completely wishy washy doom and gloom often involving emotionally-mute heroes and heroines against a world of inequality that is common to YA dystopia. It has become apparent to me that while the rich meaning has not fully fleshed itself out in this initial instalment, the writing at its core, is still reliably thought-provoking and emotionally-charged to drive its message in a new world from a perspective of discovery. So it is no surprise that this novel (or its successors) have garnered the attention and accolades it has earned; despite its inclination to have semi-mixed reactions.
“Men’s minds are messy places and Noise is like the active, breathing face of that mess. It’s what’s true and what’s believed and what’s imagined and what’s fantasized and it says one thing and a completely opposite thing at the same time and even tho the truth is definitely in there, how can you tell what’s true and what’s not when yet getting everything?”
There is a boy. His name is Todd Hewitt. He resides in Prentisstown, a village of men, where it has become tradition that a boy becomes a man at the age of 13. In a town of perpetual Noise; a sea of endless unturnoffable thoughts from man and creacher, Todd finds a pocket of silence which takes him (and his ruddy good dog Manchee) on an adventure against his own will into a world he knows nothing about and where everything is true and everything is lies. Through the forest and abandoned settlements of New World, Todd is unknowingly the harbinger of chaos and the cursed men of Prentisstown want nothing more than their own and will travel the distance to find him. But why go through all the trouble for the last boy in Prentisstown? And where have all the women gone? Todd is an almost-man, one month to be exact; but he’s still a boy, and he’s about to learn why manhood is an idea that is not a choice of his own.
“I said it before, men lie all the time, to theirselves, to other men, to the world at large, but who can tell when the lie’s a strand in all the other lies and truths floating round outta yer head? Everyone knows yet lying but everyone else is lying, too, so how can it matter? What does it change? It’s just part of the river of a man, part of his Noise, and sometimes you can pick it out, sometimes you can’t. But he never stops being himself when he does it.”
The first-person visual is a pretty big hurdle (if not the most notable difference) a reader will tackle to immerse themselves in Todd’s head and the world created. Grammar and Spelling Nazis, ye be warned. A plethora of phonetic injustices and misspellings that mirror a prepubescent teenager on a social messenger like ICQ (yeah, that’s some throwback shit right there)—oh, wait, he’s 12—are laden throughout and it’s part of the quirkiness of Todd’s character and most notably the propensity of his settlement in abhorring educayshun (see what I did there?) for the intrinsic belief system loosely tied to colonization and dehumanization in crafting a being fit for a forced existence. This and more discussed in the ramblings per theme section.
Everything is meticulously placed and for-the-most-part reads as if it’s a discovery on its own for the first time. This is good. The broken dialogue that is Todd’s thoughts teeters between right or wrong, truth and lie because everything becomes a first even if it’s an after-the-fact self-analysis based on Noise or stories he’s been told. The grit in how events play out is in the nature of the suspense itself and readers are thrown into the whirlwind of danger, eeriness, and the remote assumption that somebody (anybody) is listening to Todd’s every thought much as how the reader is following the protagonists’ Noise. To tangent this into the writing itself is of but a casual prose, a tried-and-true rawness with the passing thought of expletives. It has its moments of brilliance in an otherwise muddled world of non-uniform thoughts as even some lines are repeated for the sake of true cognition because let’s be honest: speaking with a stutter isn’t the same as rethinking the possibility of anything with a rational pretense. ‘I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I will do this’. If the value of growth lives and dies by the conscious thought, then the writing (and voice) is proof that repetition is not a tedious affair but one that justifies development.
While I have qualms regarding certain show-don’t-tell semantics of this POV (of which there are some evident no-no’s that I’m not going to delve into), the writing is well suited to Todd and his environment that seemingly allows for the world to embody a character all on its own; it’s dark, it’s alive, and even the wilderness has its own thoughts. The concept is novel: space colonist’s transition from Old World into New World with hopes of finding a new abode (obviously). Where they decide to settle is in an ordinary yet unique environment of ghastly alienish mystique fronted as an inhabited forested mountainside with an old western backdrop. And Noise. Lots and lots of Noise.
More importantly, Ness doesn’t burden readers with a mural of infinite brush strokes. Minimalist detailing doesn’t always work with the introduction of new scenery; especially if it’s encouraging the integration of science-fiction elements, but the setting is a plausible scapegoat to the adrenaline-rush of action that’s happening. Swamp, dirt, cliff, road, trees, bushes, rivers, more trees. The power in writing doesn’t come from overabundant descriptions but rather depends on the readers recall in conjuring up images from their educated minds much like how Todd is doing as he discovers more about his world. With this in mind, I found the read to be a quick-paced page-turner with most of my thoughts on thematic discussions realised more-so after the read. Not only was the content engrossing, it is through and through a claustrophobic panic with only unknowns staring right back at Todd.
“…I think how hope may be the thing that pulls you forward, may be the thing that keeps you going, but that it’s dangerous, too, that it’s painful and risky, that it’s making a dare to the world and when has the world ever let us win a dare?”
The Knife of Never Letting Go covers a sparse range of issues that is rich and meaningful given its intended audience. The concept of identity and dehumanization is one that forces characters to be broken down only to be rebuilt in a uniform way. As the lone boy in Prentisstown, Todd is extremely isolated in a world with men and is categorically defined to be different from the rest, forcing him to want to fit the mold of a man not on his own terms in order to gain a sense of belonging. But what isn’t immediately known to Todd is that the pressures to conform into someone he isn’t (yet) jeopardizes his moral compass and innocence as a child that once lost cannot truly be found again.
There’s a passage in this novel that suggests the stark realities of growing up (or in this case, the loss of innocence) through an inconceivable act. The purpose of the line “if one of us falls, we all fall” is a malleable thought that changes in context throughout the novel but remains reliably the same. What begins as the bases of dystopian reasoning on the part of the antagonists finds its way to each own characters’ internal struggle of choice; the defining moment which pushes a character to realise that despite fully rationalized decisions having its ups and downs, choice is still theirs to make on their own terms—not by the pressures of others. This extends to the thought that if we’re the kings of our own temple, then once you fall then it is very possible for others to succumb to the same fate as you have as well. The message therein regards that even if it’s an inevitable conclusion, it doesn’t mean that you can’t take the first strike and choose the arena of battle.
“But a knife just ain’t just a thing, is it? It’s a choice, it’s something you do. A knife says yes or not, cut or not, die or don’t. A knife takes the decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back.”
This extends into the realm of being a coming-of-age novel with the transition into manhood being the driver of self-discovery. Although there are aha moments, there are two key plot points that propel Todd to the breaking point of what being a man is; both situations involving death as the measure for evaluation and both handled in polar opposite ways. I won’t detail these events but they push him to become more than what he thinks he amounts to. And despite all that becomes shit in his life, there’s still a silent thread of hope and sense of humanity introduced in bits and pieces before and after these events that allow Todd to believe in the possibility of him making it out intact even everything seems stacked against him. Yes, this might be the cheese ball of tropes but it fits neatly together with the other predominant themes and it is that where the heart of the novel is found.
If one thing seems consistent with this novel and More Than This, it’s that Patrick Ness is not afraid to let shit hit the fan. Whether or not he’s one sadistic bloke is beyond me and I could honestly care less because it’s not always about senseless suffering. Surely we can argue the irrational thinking behind children who get harmed by adults with a giant glowing “this is not okay” sign as much as we can also condition younger readers to consider the likelihood of adults fucking up their shit if certain mumbo-jumbo garbage isn’t lived up to. This isn’t to say that I’m all for characters disappearing on a whim with no substance or egregiously killed off for style to prove the author has balls to do so. But at the end of it all, if it provokes the necessary emotion to create a dialogue (whether or not we stand at a united front) and allows you to tangibly feel something, then it’s done its job—good or bad.
“They’re singing here. Calling it from one to another in their Noise.Here I am. Here we are. Here we go. Here is all that matters. Here.
It’s—can I say?
It’s like the song of a family where everything’s always all right, it’s a song of belonging that makes you belong just by hearing it, it’s a song that’ll always take care of you and never leave you. If you have a heart, it breaks, if you have a heart that’s broken, it fixes.”
Manchee—you’re an effing ruddy good dog. One would imagine how easy it should be to write in the mind of a dog (let alone all the other animals in this novel). But Ness has depicted an uncanny resemblance of man’s best friend. Whenever Manchee says something (even if it’s simply ‘poo’), my spirits are lifted. Whenever Manchee gets hurt during some unnecessary debacle, I feel a pain and struggle to continue reading this book, forever wanting to figuratively punch Todd’s first unborn child (also: fuck you. Todd). Manchee is a scene stealer and I’m saying this now: he’s amongst the best (if not the best) literary pets I’ve come across. So if you ever read this, Mr. Patrick Ness, I love and hate you for writing Manchee the way you did. Love and hate you.
While the prime antagonist is basically the entirety of Prentisstown, it’s safe to say that the leading character that fits the bill of eternal agony for the escapees is Preacher Aaron and his divine ways of pretty much being some sort of pseudo-Terminator. Like, seriously, Aaron is this continual looming proxy of Prentisstown sent to retrieve Todd and he’s resilient in ways that defy plausibility and survivability. Did anyone else think of Mormon’s when Aaron was on the hunt for Todd? Not to hark on any Mormon’s in particular, but I’ve been in numerous situations when Mormon’s attempt to reason with me until I saw their perspective. Not to mention they followed me until the ends of the street(s) if necessary. Given this information, Aaron is a spinning image of this once repressed memory that both ticks me off and scares me by the same measure. So as much value that can be credited to him, I definitely had mixed feelings based on his persistence in being a staggering pillar of conviction with little-to-no malicious intent to truly harm Todd. Which by the way, isn’t extremely clear cut to begin with so at best he’s a one-dimension reminder that stranger danger is still (and can be) a very real thing to be skeptical about.
Todd Hewitt is a dynamic almost-man and a protagonist that really sticks to you. Between his lacklustre childhood of continual, ominous Noise and the limited teachings of any self-righteous community, Todd is an illiterate child thrust out of his environment (with his mom’s diary no less) as a product of Mayor Prentiss and into a new perspective challenged by what he’s told to believe versus what’s in-front of him. He experiences normal young boy frustrations and despite being unintelligible on paper; his actions are everything but. Moreover, Todd begins to broaden his scope as the narrative progresses, becoming responsive and perceptive to his new environment and the people he meets. There is one particular moment where it feels as though time stops and Todd realises that he doesn’t need Noise or conversation or action to begin understanding anyone. By simply being perceptive and observing his environment, the people, the emotions and reactions, does he recognize that by being present and in the moment can he truly see someone—and it was such a profound and poignant moment for Todd and as a reader. (On the record: but this isn’t where I shed tears).
To round out the characters, Viola Eade is a girl who joins Todd on his run from the Prentisstown mobsters. She remains silent and simply observes Todd and Manchee for a section of the novel and has unwillingly enveloped herself in the whole chase situation despite having her own reasons of being on New World. I won’t expose much of her character development and addition in this review anymore. The one thing I can say is that I’m happy that Todd and Viola enjoy a realistic platonic relationship not driven by any form of lust from either party. While the progression of the plot would signal their increasing proximity to each other (re: because dire situations in dystopia obviously bring a boy and girl together), it goes head-strong to follow the friendship-first recipe of an honest relationship.
“There ain’t nothing good that don’t got real bad waiting to follow it.”
Pegged as a children’s novel (even more youngin’ than YA can get), there’s so much more in this suited for an older audience than what it’s marketed for. But by the same measure, Ness has put together a narrative that speaks to a variety of human and social issues for a younger audience. It’s often dark and bleak but I honestly think he’s just adapting to the resilience of younger readers and the susceptibility of gritty, morbidly anguishing perspectives most notably found in video games and television that often throws a punch of reality without the thought that there may be a younger audience.
If I’ve said this once, I’ve said this a thousand times: this book moves forward in a very stagnant way. While much of the book takes place as a chase-thriller at best with the pretense of stranger danger, the message is still as profound as ever with a fuck all unconventional writing style that’s uniquely this trilogy. Sometimes the first novels of trilogies can be read standalone despite there being more answers to seek but there’s a cliffhanger that begs for attention and I do certainly hope that you have the next instalment ready to go (which I don’t unfortunately). The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is all that I hoped for and more and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It is far from a perfect read but the premise is pretty rad, and, Ness is as cool as a cucumber.
“Life equals running and when we stop running maybe that’s how we’ll know life is finally finished.”
//exhaustive rant ends here.
WELL. This has got to be the review which has taken me the longest to write (not to mention the longest written). Why are the good books the hardest ones to put words to?
Oh goodness I apologize to anyone who dare reads this entirety. Maybe. Except not really because I felt like I had to talk about EVERYTHING.