Conflicted emotions

churchyard yew
Churchyard yews

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:

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19 thoughts on “Conflicted emotions

    1. Chthonic is a great word, isn’t it! Reminds me of H P Lovecraft’s weird concept Cthulhu, but without the attendant cheap horror. A Monster Calls is a relatively quick read — I read it in two evenings at a relatively steady pace — but I hope you (if this is not too inappropriate a word) enjoy it whenever you get to it.

  1. Well you did it again. I new title to look for. Sometimes I like to move from my comfort zone and read something unsettling; this sounds like such a book.
    I remember when one of my aunts was dying of cancer, my cousins and I talked about her impending death. We wanted it to come to ease her pain, but agreed we felt like monsters for speaking about it. It will be interesting to see if Conor’s monster is real or if it is a manifestation of his thoughts and emotions.

    1. I think you’d find this book quite cathartic in respect of your aunt, Sari, I certainly did — it sort of gives the reader who may’ve been in that position permission to feel the way they did.

      Ness writes both sensitively and powerfully. An American domiciled in Britain, he may be well placed to consider Conor’s feelings of being an outsider, indeed the Monster’s role as Other in this book.

  2. I’m so glad you liked this book – if liked, as you say, is the right word. I thought it was an exceptional piece of children’s literature and I’m glad you read the illustrated copy, as Jim Kay’s artwork adds so much.
    A great review.
    We’ll have to see what becomes of it at the cinema.

    1. Thanks, Lynn, and thanks for suggesting it! As Ness has written the screenplay we should expect the film to stay true to his perspective, but of course movies are the product of a number of individuals so what comes alive in the text and in the illustrations (at another remove from the words on the page) may be even further removed on the screen. We’ll wait and see.

      1. From what I saw of the clip, the film makers have used the drawings as inspiration for the Monster at least. But have they got the ‘feel’ right? Years ago The Dark is Rising was adapted for the screen (with an American playing Will Stanton – in a story that is soooo English, it’s painful -the horror!) the reviews were poor and I’ve never been able to watch it. It felt as if someone was trampling on a bit of my childhood. We’ll see, indeed 🙂

        1. Yes, I consciously avoid The Dark Is Rising whenever I see it in TV listings, for the very same reason. Still, some good, or at least competent, actors here; who knows, the director may get it right too. I never take trailers seriously anyway, with their breathless sensationalised voice-overs, even if it is Liam Neeson.

          1. I found the same problem with the screen adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – disappointing. Though the other half informs me a Welsh film studio is intending to adapt all three His Dark Materials books, which would be great – just not inapropriately wedging a Hollywood name in an unsuitable role would be a good start.
            Yes, Liam Neeson certainly has the right voice for the Monster – let’s hope the rest of the film is good too.

            1. Thanks for the link, Chriss. Oh, I’m so glad it’s going to be a long TV series rather than films – films by their nature cut detail and just focus on plot. Very exciting – the books so deserve a good adaptation, too.
              I picked up somewhere on the net that the anti-organised religion theme in the books didn’t play well in the States, which is perhaps why there was never a sequel to the Golden Compass. Back to our conversation from the other day … 🙂

            2. Fear of offending the religious right meant all references to the Church in the Northern Lights were replaced by the Magisterium in The Golden Compass, for example. Yes indeed, bigotry wins again.

            3. Strange, how some get so worked up over these things, as if a children’s trilogy could damage or undermine their institution. There are other things going on in the world more deserving of their concern.

  3. earthbalm

    Another book you’ve prompted me to seek out. I too like reading your posts for their ability to introduce me to new words. I took a punt at the meaning of Chthonic and thought it might originate from Cthulhu. Of course, I was wrong but I now have something to drop carelessly into staffroom chat. We have a few underworld monsters in our school – staff not children!

    1. I can imagine you twitting a difficult colleague with “You’re so chthonic!” and stopping the conversation stone dead! Unless that leads to some awkward questions from the senior member of staff concerned …

      This book reminded me of my teaching days and all those young students, too many over the years, who smouldered under a dark cloud — who knows what dilemmas they were facing on a day-to-day basis. They were never going to tell, were they?

      1. earthbalm

        Just waiting for an education system that could properly address their needs and somebody who was able to ‘lend an ear’. I used to run a student assist programme and all some children needed was somebody to listen.

    1. No, not escapist, but a masterpiece nevertheless. I don’t usually go for literature with an ‘issue’ at its heart, but truly this was gripping as well as thought-provoking, an exceptional fantasy in its purest form as well as reflecting real life. Don’t give it a miss if it ever comes your way, Col, though perhaps reserve it for a time you’re not at a low ebb.

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