This is a powerful and deeply affecting young adult novel written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay. I’ve never read anything by Ness, but I’ve heard only the most superlative of things about his Chaos Walking trilogy of YA books. After having encountered A Monster Calls, those books have jumped right to the top of my to-read list.
We are told on the cover that the book was inspired by an idea from Siobhán Dowd. In the authors’ note (see the subtle and thoughtful nod to multiple authorship) Ness explains that he was gifted with the characters, premise, and a beginning — all that she had created by the time of her death from cancer at the age of 47.
A Monster Calls tells the tale of Conor, an emotionally wounded teen who struggles to deal with his father’s absence, an oppressive grandmother, bullying, and, worst of all, his mother’s cancer. Confused and repressed, Conor’s trauma manifests in visitations from the anthropomorphised yew tree visible from his bedroom window. The monster calls, but Conor’s not afraid — he’s seen much worse.
As the novel progresses, Conor and his mother try and fail and try again to cope with her worsening condition and the successive failure of increasingly disabling therapies. The invisible mark this leaves on him alienates him from his peers at school and leads to victimisation by bullies, while his inchoate rage undermines his only friendship. It all sounds a bit bleak and worthy, but the writing is clean and beautiful, the characterisation is absolutely perfect, and there’s a sense of tremendous psychological verisimilitude and excitement. The motivations and behaviours of Conor, his family, and his bullies are utterly authentic: as weird and unpredictable as only humans can be. It’s highly compelling stuff and heartbreakingly sad.
On top of that, however, you have the monster: one of Maurice Sendak’s wild things grown darker and more violent. A force of nature and of catharsis that allows Conor to smash and shout when it seems that nothing can be done and nothing said. It comes three times to tell three stories: three ambiguous parables that defy hermeneutics and have no clear moral. These stories are gems and deserve to have a life of their own outside the confines of this novel. They are stories to bamboozle children, stories that will have them scratching their head and complaining that things aren’t supposed to work out that way. Just like life. When the monster starts to tell them, Conor knows exactly where they’re going — he’s heard platitudinous fables just like these before. But then the monster twists them and Conor is left reeling. After the third such tale, the monster demands that Conor tell his own story…
Supporting and illuminating this narrative is Jim Kay’s beautiful gothic art, by turns sombre and frenetic. The book is about 200 pages long, but the margins are generous and many pages have a substantial amount of space devoted to the art, making it a speedy read (though the time needed for mulling and reflection and blowing one’s nose means that it’s not as quick as it could be). The occasional double page spread is invariably superb and striking, perfectly timed to complement peak points within the story.
This book is a perfect package. I’m not the only person who thinks this — it’s the only book ever to have won the UK’s premiere YA fiction prizes for both artwork and writing. You don’t need an excuse to have this on your bookshelf (the cover is as sombre and stylish as the contents), but if you feel that you do then start working on it immediately. I can’t remember the last time I felt as glad to have read a book.