Book Title: A Monster Calls (Standalone)
Author: Patrick Ness, Jim Kay (Illustrator)
Number of pages: 215
The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.
But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth.
(re: Goodreads @ A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
– If you are interested in this book in any capacity, skip all reviews and just delve into it (the copy with the artwork specifically)
– The writing is simple and powerful; don’t be fooled at this being advertised as kid-lit
– Unless you’re a robot, you will likely feel all the emotions tied to the stages of loss and grief
No, I do not think that I am on a Ness binge (but damn is he rising up the ranks in favesies).
But let’s get onto the more important issue: why is the plain-text version of this book more expensive than the one with art? At least, I’m pretty sure it’s like a buck more for zero art. Now why would anyone want to buy that?
In truth, I don’t want this review to go into thorough detail like I usually do with most books. This is something that I can’t be bothered to ramble about (even if I know I won’t be able to shut up once I start) because I am in the firm belief that the less hype and the less you’re in contact with this book, the better position you are to fully enjoy it. But continuity calls for some analysis, I guess, and maybe I’ll find some clarity on how I feel about this book (because I honestly don’t know).
Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.
Based on face-value (the cover and the synopsis basically), one would never expect things to become fully realized the way it does. And why would you think otherwise? Skimming through the artwork is hauntingly atmospheric and it certainly makes you wonder the kind of power this book delivers for being such a short, children’s read. The messages and themes this book recognizes is stellar in capturing the essence of love, loss, and grief. Its delivery is compounded by the fact that it’s in the eyes of just a young, albeit self-aware, schoolboy who demonstrates a keen sense of emotional intelligence that plays into the magical realism of the monster and the realization of finding the metaphorical lighted-exit-in-a-dark-tunnel.
But let me cut to the chase: I didn’t hate this book; and I didn’t love it either. If ratings matter to you, and before you hound me for chirping the contents therein, I’m still giving this a four-ish or more out of five. That’s worth something, right? Jokes on you because I’m in the belief that no number or opinion can label this emotionally charged and compelling narrative as something short of what it is; even this almost negligent review.
Normally, I’m not one to fall into this pitfall of hype killing books as I like to distinguish and create value on my own terms but it’s possible that I was expecting more than what was offered. I just don’t know. From the graphic art to the meaning, there’s so much readers can grab hold of and run with. And maybe the resilience in this story is one which truly resonates with those who have had a history of immediate loss and grieving and would therefore have stronger ties and an emotional disposition to tangibly feel for what Conor was going through. It reasons between emotional introversion and measurable extroversion to create a distinct and poignant environment as if readers can dismiss the fact that it is supposed to be fiction—reading true to Ness’ prerogative in delivering a book that Siobhan would enjoy. And while that’s all awesome when it’s said and done, I still, unfortunately, didn’t feel as much as I thought I should or could have. I’m probably unaware of being a robot though.
This doesn’t mean that it was horribly written—far from it, actually—as Ness can do no wrong in my eyes. No one person shares the same walk of life, and so starting and finishing A Monster Calls with different circumstances will inevitably evoke a differing myriad of emotions. There are so many constants that will link readers to the characters and their harrowing loss and the process of acceptance, to the utter feeling of coping with the raw, unconditional truth. But if there’s a reality that can be taken away with this read, it’s that its strength lies in the truth and authenticity in a universal voice when layers that normally give structure to one’s life become unhinged, and all they have to look forward to is whatever’s found within. In this case, it’s the likely manifestation of the conscience, the monster itself.
I think that sums up most of my general comments. Proceed to the next phase of analyses with skepticism as there may be loose details of what happens (i.e. spoilers).
The story centers on Conor O’Malley, an ordinary boy with ordinary issues. It’s that simple. He endures continual suffering from school bullying only to come home to the face undue hardship of his mother’s illness and his seemingly broken family. The only thing that remains constant is the yew tree overlooking his home and the chronic nightmares that seem to be telling him more than what he wants to realize himself. But as the days get older and his mother’s health declines even more, Conor is greeted by a monster who pales in comparison to his nightmare and wants to do more than just share stories…it wants to hear Conor’s story.
There’s a natural tone in the writing that puts the honest foot forward in proving that a no-gimmick prose can be as plainly beautiful as one littered with flourishes. Power in writing doesn’t always come from immaculate world-building, on-point dialogue, or even following our revelation-seeking protagonists. At its core, power can often be delivered through an emotionally charged message, and it’s what A Monster Calls achieves—even if you end up loving or hating this novel. There are no tricks to the narrating; in Conor’s voice or even through the monster’s story-time throwbacks. This is it and this is how it is; whether or not you believe it is at your own discretion. Ness isn’t trying to simplify and short sell the reader’s intelligence to buy into this concept because he doesn’t need to. Yes this is packaged as a children’s/teen novel (amongst all of Ness’ other works) but the idea, the concept, the setting, the dialogue, the ups, the downs, the everything—they’re all familiar and tangible to any reader of any age-group. It’s this which makes this read so magical, so effortless, so resonating, and so unequivocally real.
The place(s) where this book dabbles in is timeless. It’s non-discrete in ways that doesn’t run off into the sunset with words, words, and more words of meticulous detail. It is in a home, in a town, in a city, in the world (well I’d actually hope its Earth, at least), but frankly, it honestly doesn’t matter where—because the story will still have the same outcome. And if you’re like me, and you purchased the paperback with the artwork, then you’ll know that the drawings themselves isn’t so much as a replacement for textual imagery than as to simply enhance the mood and to give body and substance to the writing through explicitly showing and not simply telling. Can this book be read without the artwork? Yes. Do I suggest you do that? Not really. The art is the only thing that I can somewhat make sense of and even then it’s a stretch.
Conor is a resilient character, if not a universal stand-in for every single person who has or will endure vulnerability in one point or another (I’m basically implying everyone). Everything you would think a young boy endures, from emotions to thoughts, is rightfully true to some capacity if not for a singular cause then for the masses. The overarching themes of vulnerability and helplessness, being accepted despite lacking visibility, of facing fears, and the learning curve and grieving involved in forgiving yourself (and those around you) even if it feels like disloyalty to your own blood, are all concrete matters readers can identify with and those which Conor will ultimately tackle head first. You will laugh with Conor. You will feel shit with Conor. You will hope for the impossible because Conor, just like you, simply wants some semblance of security without facing the truth. In many ways, you are Conor.
The Monster is opposite of what you would expect when you actually delve into the read, and it’s all quite complicated actually. Despite it being a mental exercise trying to create meaning from his stories, one thing is for certain: it’s the only character ballsy enough to tell Conor the truth, even if it’s done in a roundabout allegorical way. There will always be a giant question mark regarding the metaphysical nature of the monster, and it’s the third tale that truly animates the spirit of the monster and one that complicates the issue further. The tale itself is one that is realistically sound for Conor to have concocted himself, and unlike the previous tales, doesn’t require a sense of historical accuracy and knowledge on his part to have known about the tree. Add to this Conor’s frustrations to understand the first two stories and the resultant shrub, leaves, and berries that end up in his home—and you have a powerfully confusing entity helping Conor along the way. So I’m not even going to begin trying to create meaning with something that’s not really there—it just hurts my head.
If past history dictates anything, then I’m on the belief that it was quite possible that Ness doesn’t falter with integrating the thought of (or hints at) an LGBTQ character into his novels. Though, you should take these comments with a grain of salt as it cannot be proven or disproved in any manner. When I first came across the bullying antics of Harry, it seemed to be erratic and an illogical position of power for the star pupil to be hounding on a specific nobody; except Conor isn’t really a nobody because he has grown into the position of a somebody his community thinks they know. So it can be the case that Harry feels like his popularity is sleighted by Conor’s predicament and tortures the shit out of him for it—it’s one fair take. But then I considered that one moment when Harry doesn’t throw the next punch; as if mercy is shown, and so I wonder the possibility of the power monger truly being infatuated with Conor instead of actual distaste for him. When you’re the boy wonder who has everything going for you, to what extent does one actually get off being sadistic? To me, Harry doesn’t exude an emotional awareness that can truly validate a lacking sense of worth as everyone sees his presence. If his goal is to continuously strike fear by embodying the alpha-male, then he’s already achieved that as well. But what if he’s a victim in his own right, with his own set of difficulties and the only way he knows how to direct these emotions is by inflicting hurt onto others. To proxy that thought, what if the only plausible way for him to direct his feelings of someone (considering his environment), is to apply force. This may be farfetched as the bully mentality is sparse but it is certainly an angle to consider.
But you actually shouldn’t listen to me at all—this kind of review is unreliable at best. So stop what you’re thinking right now and create your own judgments and conclusions. This is where Ness seems to shine best in his writing: he doesn’t provide the answers to the questions you never knew you had. Finality exists but it’s very incorporeal. Everything is complicated in this book, more-so than my experience with Chaos Walking or More Than This, yet it’s all so straight-forward. It’s all a paradox; and it’s all so utterly human. I found parts to be predictable (i.e. the timing thing) and somewhat lacklustre in experience but what I think it all amounts to is the sombre feeling of reading about the stages of loss and grief. So I sit here quiet in thought, reminding myself of the journey as if I’m looking back at the limited ounce of history that I have been graciously given. I’m not happy. I’m not crying. I’m not even so-so (whatever that means). I’m just–. And that’s why we can try to have things both ways; right or wrong, it’s a decision of a lifetime, and you aren’t less of a human for either.
That’s all I can really say.
Wait. No it isn’t–if you’re interested in a companion post to this review where I pair a song to this novel, you can click here to find out more (Luke Sital-Singh – Dark).
So I didn’t really answer why I hated it. Or why I loved it. This is one of those books where less is more and things are the way they are. I really don’t know.
2 thoughts on “[Review] A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness”
I loved A Monster Calls!! (BUT “only” gave it 4 starts on Goodreads. Maybe because deep down I, too, wanted something… more. I felt the same way about More Than This.)
I have the audipbook (the voice of the Monster!! OMG) so I have only seen some of the illustrations online but they do look gorgeous and yes, haunting – would definitely pick the illustrated book over the plain-text version 🙂
Btw, interesting thoughts on Harry. (I think you might be onto something…)
Oh! I would certainly love to hear what The Monster sounded like (though, I wouldn’t give up the illustrated version for the audio though).
I think with so many of these “social issues” we see around normally in books there’s always so much more that can be had than what’s viewed superficially. Even if it wasn’t at the intent of the author, I think just creating dialogue about any idea is worth doing.