A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

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.

Walker Books, hardback, 2011, fiction, 215 pages, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, illustrated by Jim Kay, borrowed from the library

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.

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32 Comments

Filed under Books of 2012, Patrick Ness, Review, Walker Books

32 responses to “A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

  1. It’s one of the books I read last year that keeps popping up in my brain… Great book ( and review )

  2. You had me at hello. My father died of cancer a couple of years ago and it’s a very difficult experience to describe. I feel compelled to give this book a try. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

    • If, as you and I have, you have lost someone very dear to you through such a horrendous disease its hard to find books that encapsulate it and if they do do it in a which isn’t either saccharine or completely depressing, Ness manages to get the tone just right.

  3. I adore this book. In fact I made it my favourite read of last year – http://dogeardiscs.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/top-ten-of-2011-part-two/

    It’s nothing short of brilliant. Since reading I have forced it upon my Mum, wife and three friends, each cried, each loved it. As you say, it’s a modern masterpiece.

    • Utterly, utterly brilliant isnt it? I hadn’t spotted it in your favourites of 2011, I do apologise. Am off to see what other gems I might have missed.

      Definitely a modern masterpiece and a book that looks woderful as an object which is important.

  4. So agree! This book should be in every school library and given to anyone dealing with a loss.

  5. Ruthiella

    Great review. I like it when a book can be appreciated on different levels. When you wrote “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.” I thought of Mr. Chartwell and how he is horrid most of the time, but occasionally endearing and pitiful.

    • I loved Mr Chartwell though I have to admit that I haven’t made that link, now you mention it though…

      This is an incredible book and will be read on many levels whatever your age or your experience with death.

  6. gaskella

    This was one of the last books I bought in 2011 – my local bookshop had a signed first edition on their presents ideas shelf – so I got myself a present as I’d only heard good things about it, and have loved the Ness books I’ve read.

  7. This is extremely high on my To Read list for 2012. I sat with it in the bookstore one afternoon and read a good chunk of it, in fact. It’ll be my first book by Patrick Ness. Glad you enjoyed it!

  8. I hadn’t even heard of this book but now I feel I’ve been missing out. Thanks for the great review.

  9. Louise

    I loved this when I read it last year, I have the hardback copy and it really is a book to be adored!

  10. Mel

    This sounds fabulous. I think I heard the author interviewed on one of the Guardian book podcasts a couple of months ago. I sincerely hope that your inkling about the first read of the year influencing the rest of the years reading, is not true for me. I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis today, and as much as I enjoyed it, a year of that sort of think could probably affect a person’s sanity 🙂 Lucky there is only one Kafka.

    • He was indeed on one of the guests on one of the Guardian’s book podcasts a while back. I would quite like him to come on The Readers actually, hmmm thats an idea.

      Blimey Kafka… I studied that at GCSE, horrendous.

  11. Sold!…after April 1 when I permitted to read books not already on the TBR pile.

    • Haha blimey that’s quite something you have set yourself there. April the first eh? I couldn’t do it, mind you I did it for a year a few year back was hard work!

      Hope you like it when you get it!

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  13. Fantastic choice for your first book. I really loved this as well and doesn’t the art just draw you in even more? So powerful.

    • I think that this is is a brilliant example of when a book that is already brilliant is made even more brilliant by the artwork. I am wondering if the same will happen when I read Ransom Riggs book.

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  17. novelinsights

    I’ve just bought this on my Kin**e (sorry to utter that dreaded word here!) I was so impressed by your comments. One I will be moving swiftly onto after reading my current book.

    • I don’t know where this awful urge has come from, think its because of a brief spell of insomnia, but I’ve been mulling Kindles recently as a present for my next birthday from Gran! Lets gloss over that…

      Has the Kindle version got pictures? It’s the pictures that made this book for me!

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