I read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness because of this blog review. I enjoyed Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go, but as I wrote in my comment to that post, I thought of Monster as just a children’s horror story. The jacket cover just said the monster “wanted the truth,” which I thought could mean practically anything. So, while I admired the art, I had no interest in reading it.
Then I find out it’s about a boy whose mom is dying of cancer and whose dad has another family in a different country. Far from being a simple haunted house (monster-infested house?) story, Monster is about a monster who forces the boy to face the truth of his situation. What is that truth? You’ll have to read the book to find out. But it’s a truth that definitely, painfully, hit home for me.
I was an emotional mess reading Monster, and I mean that in a good way. It was cathartic, and in a way, I almost wished I’d had a monster like Conor’s, who told me such stories. A bit of personal background: my mother died of cancer last year. Conor’s pain, his anger, his denial — his experiences just felt very immediate. To be honest, I don’t know how this book will affect you. I won’t say anything as pat as that we’ve all experience loss in some form or other, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, the experience of loss is never generic. The book jacket calls the story “darkly mischievous and painfully funny.” I didn’t see the humour, but perhaps, in a few years, I will. My point isn’t that the book isn’t funny, but that it’s so intensely personal that I think it will touch each of us differently. That’s not something I can say for many books.
I was immediately struck by Conor’s first encounter with the monster:
Then the monster paused again.
You really aren’t afraid, are you?
“No,” Conor said. “Not of you, anyway.”
Of course not. Conor has something much more horrible to fear, something much more difficult to fight. There’s a focus that comes with tragedy, a loss of anxiety that isn’t so much courage as it is the realization that, when all is said and done, some monsters are really very minor.
The monster says that he will tell Conor three stories, after which Conor must tell him a fourth: the truth about the nightmare that has haunted Conor for months and that scares him much more than this monster could. I loved the monster’s stories. They had a fairy tale quality, but they also touched on specific aspects of Conor’s life. Like Conor, I wanted to control the way the stories went, and like Conor, I was shocked or thrilled or dismayed at the twists. I’m over twice Conor’s age, yet I had very similar reactions to the monster’s tales. Some situations are just too big, too frightening to handle, and the reality that, even in fantasy, we don’t always get what we want, is painful regardless of age.
Monster goes far beyond the monster’s tales. The scenes of Conor’s real life are even more powerful. As he faces bullies, as he shuts himself away from a former friend, as he repeatedly insists his mom will be cured by her treatments — everything is just raw and immediate and all too relatable. Even Conor’s fear of talking about his nightmare struck home. How often do we cling to denial because admitting something might make it true? The scene where the monster, gently yet insistently, forces him to acknowledge the truth… Amazing.
Monster is gut-wrenching, emotional, even painful. It’s also beautiful, tender, and moving. I don’t mean to make it sound like a heavy, depressing book. Nor do I want to sound cheesy, but it is uplifting. Ness never gets maudlin. The writing is masterfully subtle, and therefore connects even more deeply. Whatever your experience with loss, this book will connect with that part of you.
After one of the monster’s stories, Conor demands to know what he was supposed to learn from it.
You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? the monster said. You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?
It laughed louder and louder again, until the ground was shaking and it felt like the sky itself might tumble down…
“I don’t understand. Who’s the good guy here?”
There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.
Conor shook his head. “That’s a terrible story. And a cheat.”
It is a true story, the monster said. Many things that are true feel like a cheat.