Patrick Ness A Monster Calls
From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd
Illustrations by Jim Kay
Walker Books 2012 (2011)
Anyone who knows or knew anyone with a prolonged life-threatening illness may well sympathise, even empathise, with young Conor in this moving story. His mother has for some time been an out-patient at a local hospital but the doctors have to resort to alternatives when her illness fails to respond to the usual treatments. Meanwhile Conor has to hope against hope that things will get better, but at the same time has to cope with a recurring nightmare, bullies at school, a disapproving grandmother and a father whom he sees less and less of, due to a demanding new family across the Atlantic in the US.
And then a monster calls. Or does Conor call it?
A Monster Calls is a superb novel of fear and denial, anger and love. However ill and distressed a loved one may be, the stresses on their friends and family — especially those who have to live day in, day out with the uncertainty, with the feeling of powerlessness in the face of a debilitating disease — are at times intolerable. Those nearest and dearest will have conflicting emotions, including a desire for it all to come to an end, for which they will feel guilt or simply refuse to acknowledge. Conor is just such a one, the burden of being his mother’s carer becoming at times too much for his young mind and body to take.
I suspect the feeling of guilt overrides all for Conor. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the title of this novel recalls J B Priestley’s celebrated play An Inspector Calls, where a family is confronted through the promptings of a mysterious Inspector Goole with their collective culpability for a death. In place of Inspector Goole we have not so much a ghoul as a nature spirit, whose relentless quizzing of Conor O’Malley tries to draw out of the schoolboy the plotline of a story that he has hidden from even himself.
Yew trees have a sinister reputation. They’re common in churchyards. Their bark sometimes ‘bleeds’. Their berries are toxic (the word ‘toxic’ itself is said to be related to Latin taxus, the tree itself) and farmers always worry that their livestock will fatally ingest the leaves and berries. And yet the yew has a long history in traditional medicine, and the modern drug derived from it (Paclitaxel, registered as Taxol) has been developed to treat ovarian and breast cancer. In 2004 the author Siobhan Dowd was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, from which she sadly died in 2007. I don’t know what treatment she had, but the outline for this story — for which “she had the characters, a premise, and a beginning” — was eventually completed by Patrick Ness and published in 2011, quite rightly winning a slew of awards. And it is a yew tree from a nearby churchyard, with all of its associations, which takes centre stage a lot of the time.
The monster comes visiting Conor’s house like Grendel invading Heorot, the mead-hall in Beowulf; unlike Grendel, the monster itself is not what the young protagonist has to confront and defeat. But what the two tales — the ancient and the modern — have in common is the chthonic creature itself, one an underground denizen of swamp and the other an anthropomorphised tree, both supernatural beings emerging from the human subconscious. Grendel has his story, that of a Caliban who can’t abide human culture; the Monster, like the Ancient Mariner, has histories to tell Conor: about how life doesn’t have to be fair, about humans as complex creatures who are often neither wholly good nor bad, despite our expectations of them being either saints or sinners. Fittingly, in a story about conflicted emotions, the embedded stories that the monster tells, and the story that Conor has to tell, cause violent emotions to rise to the surface, to finally resolve themselves into an unpalatable truth.
A Monster Calls absolutely deserves its accolades. This edition has stark monochrome illustrations by Jim Kay, whose embellishments reminded me at times of the work of Charles Keeping; they utterly complement the narrative and echo the bleakness of young Conor’s state of mind. But despite this it’s an uplifting book; without pulling its punches the resolution is absolutely as it should be. It recalls pain and trauma that too many of us have had to live through, not always with a hopeful outcome, but I’m so glad that I’ve read it.
In the 2015 Reading Challenge this book filled the category a book that made me cry. Thanks to Lynn Love for suggesting this, reminding me that I already had it to read. And you all might be interested that Patrick Ness has written the screenplay for the film, due in October 2016, and starring Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones and Liam Neeson: