Posted by: Natalie | November 21, 2012

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I could really go off some people. And I’m really starting to go off Patrick Ness. He keeps making me cry.

I usually only cry from pure frustration. Oh, and  illness, when I’m tired, need feeding, thirsty, confused, hurt, bruised or broken. Or a combination of these which makes me an unbearable human being. You get the general idea. I don’t do happy crying really, and can keep myself contained when reading or tv viewing – mostly. In fact I can count on one hand the number of books which have had me properly sobbing – not just a sigh of sadness and a glimmering droplet to the eye; I mean full on, eye-swelling blubbering usually only reserved for the spare time I get with Steve (poor lamb).

J. K. Rowling did it to me twice (although I do attribute one of those occasions to a hormonal imbalance – oh, I forgot to mention hormonal!) and I am quite positive (although I cannot remember truthfully) a grown up book has tugged more than one heart string, but it is Patrick Ness who really gets me gasping for air. Git.

In The Knife of Never Letting Gohe broke me good and proper through a medium I usually . . . hate. Yes, that would be the word. I have no time for animal based antics in stories written or otherwise; I refused to watch Lassie, I loathed Flipper and don’t even get me started on Gentle Ben. Needless to say, Black Beauty is not on my shelves. Granted, the first instalment of Chaos Walking is definitely not an animal story, but it does have the humanistic incarnation of a Jack Russell which I just fell head over heels in love with. This in itself was totally unexpected for me and I can only attribute this to Ness’ wonderful writing and skilful toying with feelings like in some slightly sadistic emotional playground. I had to stop reading. I physically had to put the book down to pull myself together. I would actually force people into reading this book in front of me just to see them crumble as I did (now who’s sadistic?!).

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A Monster Calls is a book with just the same controlling power. Emotionally stunning, beautifully written and with the most incredible illustrations (children’s version, although the cover to the adult version is also rather pretty) this is a book I long to own forever. I was lucky enough to borrow a signed copy from a colleague and completely understand why it is something he treasures. Regardless of the fact that its gorgeous and personalised, the true value is hidden within the words. Although not as compelling as the Chaos Walking trilogy, there is a simple subtle truth in what I regard as a modern fairytale. There are not enough stories like this out there these days. So many are trying too hard to be something grander, deeper, huger, more ‘franchisable’. Ness keeps things simple, understated and raw.

It tells the story of a young boy, Conor, struggling to cope with his mother’s illness. Anyone who has sadly dealt with such problems too soon and too young will instantly connect with the story. But seeing the state I was in, I would possibly not recommend reading it alone! Hand holding may be preferable. However, covering all this, weaving through Conor’s torment and desperate need for punishment, is a story almost straight out of folklore itself. It could easily be a tale passed from mouth to ear for hundreds of years, retold around camp fires under blankets of stars. Yet, at the same time, the subject matter of terminal cancer makes the story startlingly contemporary and horrifically sad.

As an adult, ‘lessons’ and ‘preachings’ in children’s books are horrendous. They are an anvil around the neck, detracting from pure, unadulterated, guilt free indulgence of the imagination. They make us cringe and think back to crummy 90’s TV shows and their daily life lessons – don’t do drugs kids – and all that blarny. It puts me off. However, I may be changing my mind. Although the themes of grief and anger are constantly at the surface, this is definitely a book which does not fit the mould.  It must be read to children, they should investigate for themselves. Not just for dealing with great loss and sadness, but also to just no that its OK to feel like crap. That actually, not everything is wonderful and no, you don’t have to suffer alone. Granted, most children won’t have a giant Yew monster coming to life in the middle of their school, but you get the gist.

But more than this, the whole book is based on inspiration. Ness was never meant to write this book. It was an idea germinated by Siobhan Dowd; not an author I’d previously heard of, but one of Ness’ literary heroes. She penned the idea whilst undergoing her own cancer treatments. Sadly, she never completed the tale she had planned to tell. Ness did not want to try and emulate her voice or style, to do so in his mind was in injustice to her and her ideas. Instead, he said he,

felt—and feel—as if I’ve been handed a baton, like a particularly fine writer has given me her story and said, ‘Go. Run with it. Make trouble’.

I adore this line. I love the idea that he is no more than the rest of us; reading under duvets dreaming our tales inspired by others. Children should know this too. Should feel inspired. Should – will – read this story and devour the illustrations and feel empowered, feel inspired. They will conjure their own monsters and in turn create mischief. Make their own trouble.

It is a great, great work and should be adored by one and all. And if nothing else, I dare you to read Patrick Ness’ quick introduction at the start when next you browse the book shops – there will be no way you can walk away without it.

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