Imagine a world where you can hear what everyone else is thinking, and they can hear everything you are thinking. You can’t shut it off, it’s an endless barrage of Noise, and most of what you hear are thoughts of pain and grief. That’s how it is in Prentisstown, where all the female settlers are dead and the Noise virus has left the males with the ability to hear each other’s thoughts and the thoughts of animals.
The only remaining boy in a town of men, Todd Hewitt is a month away from his thirteenth birthday and officially becoming an adult when he and his dog Manchee encounter an odd pocket of Quiet near a river. When Todd’s adoptive fathers Ben and Cillian find out about it, they pack Todd some food and his mother’s journal and order him to take Manchee and get as far from Prentisstown as possible. Turns out that a lot of what Todd believes is actually a lie, and Prentisstown has a terrible secret in its past, and the Mayor is pulling out all the stops to bring Todd back.
Knife is a powerful book, especially because we’re thrust right into Todd’s perspective. I especially love the scenes where the book describes the Noise – the overlapping lines of text in varying fonts are a veritable cacophony. I’m usually a big fan of e-reading, but the image of Noise contained within the mechanical boundaries of the e-reader screen just does not compare to the splash of words words words practically spilling over the edge of the page. Patrick Ness uses this sparingly – most of the time, he focuses on a particular character’s Noise, signified by a different font – and when he does, we are just sucked into the chaos that Todd must endure every day. Faced with the visual representation of this chaos, we can feel the desperation in Todd’s constant repetition of the mantra “I am Todd Hewitt.”
Todd speaks in a rough dialect, and Ness expresses this through his spelling. I normally don’t mind deliberate misspellings as long as the purpose is clear and consistent, and I was fine with a lot of it in Knife (e.g. “yer” instead of “your”). For some reason, “-tion” spelled “-shun” (e.g. “stayshun” instead of “station”) really bugged me, and I think it’s because I’d imagined this narrative to be primarily oral (Todd is literally telling his story) and I don’t hear enough of a difference to justify that particular misspell. That being said, about a third of the way through, I hardly even noticed it anymore, which I guess means the book really did suck me in completely. Interestingly, Todd later meets a character whose pronunciation is more conventional, and when that character tries to correct Todd’s grammar, Todd gets very defensive. I liked that; Todd’s dialect then became not just a writing gimmick, but more of a cultural stance. A friend told me he saw the unconventional spelling and grammar in Knife to mean that the old rules, what we thought of as rules in our world, just no longer applied.
Minor comment, I love how Manchee’s speech is limited mostly to “Poo” and “Squirrel.” So many books with talking animals treat them mostly as humans in animal form. I have no problem with animals able to speak intelligently (I love Snoopy, for example), but limiting Manchee’s language makes him just a creature of such boundless joy and friendship, a welcome Noise of innocence and happiness in such a confusing, dangerous world.
Ultimately, Knife works because it dares to ask the questions: how far are you willing to go to survive, and how far can you go without losing yourself? Faced with the opportunity to kill a man who wants to kill him, Todd says “But a knife ain’t just a thing, is it? It’s a choice, it’s something you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don’t. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again.” The decision of whether or not to kill has even more significance than Todd can begin to imagine, and he faces this decision over and over as he struggles for survival. Having a knife becomes a moral dilemma, one that haunts Todd and forces him to reflect on what makes a boy into a man.
It’s a fantastic book, first in the Chaos Walking trilogy. It felt a bit long at some points, but just when my attention drifted, something major happened that snapped me right back in. Knife ends on a cliff-hanger, with a very interesting, unexpected development that promises an exciting beginning to Book Two.