I have a slight superstition that the first book you read in a New Year will reflect the reading year you have ahead (I also have a resolution I can’t be reading a book as one year goes into another unless a short story/essay collection, don’t ask me why or where this has come from, not a clue). So there is a fair amount of pressure on which ever book I choose first so I plumped for a book I had meant to read all year after my Mum and little sister gushed about it. In fact I got it from the library not long after but someone else reserved it before I’d managed to read it but when Edward Hogan made it one of his books of the year I ordered it in again. Oh I should mention what the book is shouldn’t I? It was ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness and it was utterly superb.
The basic premise, though to say basic almost sounds cheapening to this book and I don’t mean it to, of ‘A Monster Calls’ is that Conor O’Malley is a thirteen year old boy who starts to be visited by a monster as his mother is dying of cancer. On top of what is happening with his mother Conor is still going to school where he is being bullied and has fallen out with his best friend after she tells everyone about his mum, he is coming to terms with the fact his father now lives in another country and has a new child with a new wife, he is also having to come to terms with the fact that one day he will have to live with his grandma who he doesn’t have the best of relations with. He feels alone, and this is when a monster, in the form of a yew tree but much scarier, comes to call.
I can almost imagine people either thinking ‘I can’t read that it’s too sad’ or maybe that this is an emotionally manipulative book (both possibly flashed through my mind when my mother recommended I read this) ignore either of those thoughts and pick this book up because what Patrick Ness has done here. I should mention here that ‘A Monster Calls’ was an original idea by Siobhan Down who sadly never completed this novel as she died of breast cancer in 2009. I don’t know how much she had written and I don’t want to get into that debate and take anything away from Ness. I can say that I think if Dowd had been able to see what he had done with her idea she would be very proud indeed. There is a sense of collaboration with this novel not only with Dowd and Ness but with the illustrations throughout by Jim Kay. All monotone and brooding, they seem to perfectly match in internal turmoil which Conor has in his head. They also add to the fact that this book is an object of utter beauty, even the story is told on pages with images around the borders, speaking of story…
I don’t think I have yet read a piece of fiction which seems to encapsulate the entire breadth in which cancer can affect people and not just those in the eye of the storm it creates. Ness looks at the full spectrum of emotions for all those involved, from Conor, his mother and grandmother to those on the periphery such as Conor’s teachers. He takes these feeling and reactions, condenses them and then makes them readable, effecting, emotional and compelling in just over 200 pages. The monster itself is also an incredible character being utterly evil in many ways and yet having hints of goodness amongst the chaos he creates so that you are never quite sure if he is friend or foe. This adds yet another dynamic to the book. He also has a way of summing up certain things in just a line somewhere thrown in which initially says a lot and then leaves an idea growing and formulating in you and has you thinking about it for days.
“Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.”
I admit from the start I thought that the monster was a metaphor for cancer, especially as yew trees are used in creating some cancer treatments, however as the book I realised Ness had done something much more remarkable and addressed a feeling anyone who witnesses the decline of a loved one with a terminal illness feels no matter what your age. I won’t say what because it would spoil things and lessen the effect but I can say having been there when my Granddad (who I called Bongy, long story) was dying four years ago at a mere 68 I felt all the above of and I wasn’t 13, I was 25 and cared for him through that period. It might be this very factor that makes the book hit home, and left me quite an emotional wreck by the end, but I think anyone regardless of their experience with dying or cancer will get much out of this book indeed.
I can see why ‘A Monster Calls’ appealed both to my mother (aged 46), my sister (aged 13), and Ed (aged 30) and I am so pleased they told me to read it. I don’t say this often about a book, but I do believe ‘A Monster Calls’ is nothing short of a modern masterpiece, so read it if you haven’t already. What a way to start a years reading.