Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Book Review - A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd)

OK so here we go with this reviewing malarkey then. I have set myself the unlikely goal of reading all of the Carnegie shortlisted books  before the winner is announced on the 14th June. It's unlikely because I'm almost certain to fail. Hey, I'm working full time and writing as well remember!


Anyway, here's my first review...



(Photo taken from a Flickr photostream with a Creative Commons license)


At first glance, Ness and Dowd seem like very odd bedfellows. The former’s Chaos Walking trilogy can perhaps be filed under ‘dystopian’, and it’s every bit as dark, edgy and spiky as that label would suggest. Dowd’s previous CV is more obviously varied and impressive, taking in historical fiction (Bog Child), rollicking mystery yarns (The London Eye Mystery) and realistic ‘issues’ fiction (A Swift Pure Cry). Whatever the story, Dowd wrote in a lyrical, gliding style and any gritty issues were leant soft edges by her poetic lilt and emotional adeptness. The crazy style and bleak themes of Chaos Walking are not what her fiction is about.


Perhaps conscious of this, Ness stresses that, in finishing off Dowd’s original idea, he’s not out to mimic Dowd’s voice. Lesser writers would have caved in under the expectation of writing a book worthy of Dowd’s name, but not our Patrick (guess it helps that he’s won a Carnegie Medal too). So how does he do? Well, aided by the spellbinding pen and ink illustrations of Jim Kay, about as well as can be expected…


A Monster Calls tells the story of Conor. A seemingly ordinary enough boy, dealing with bullies at school and coming to the terms with the fact that his mother has cancer (the knowledge that this was to take Dowd’s life makes it all the more poignant).  What he also has to come to terms with is the monster who visits him at precisely 12:07am. Not every night, just when he is ‘needed’. This monster resembles a mighty tree, ‘gathered into a spine, and then a torso, the thin, needle-like leaves weaving together to make a green, furry skin that moved and breathed as if there were muscles and lungs underneath.’ Conor has been plagued by the same recurring nightmare, but this monster, far from ‘following’ him out of his nightmares, is there to make Conor confront the most terrifying thing of all: the truth.


What impresses me most about A Monster Calls is the way that the stories the monster tells Conor are far from being hackneyed ‘and the moral of the story is’ life lessons, but haunting, potent allegories that subvert traditional storytelling conventions. The ‘wildness of the stories’, as one chapter is headed, do indeed match the wildness in Conor’s life, but not in the way you’re probably expecting. As the story progresses, so does the sense of foreboding over Conor confronting the ‘truth’. This seemingly culminates in a dream sequence of immense power, the language framing the action in moving, harrowing phrases. But the real moment is saved right to the end, by which time the reader is so caught up in Conor’s grief that hearts are ripe for breaking…


Written in an elegiac style a million miles from the Chaos Walking trilogy, Ness deserves immense credit for producing such a masterful work. It could well be his best yet. Flaws? Well, the grandmother who Conor wars with (with his poor mum in the middle) was perhaps a bit of a caricature. And the closest thing Conor has to a friend, Lily, could do with more screen time. But that’s me nit picking. This is a wonderful, moving, almost magical tale. I don’t think anyone’s ever won the Carnegie medal two years in a row, but with A Monster Calls, Ness has given himself every chance.

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