Sunday, 8 May 2011

Book #32 A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls

The genesis for the latest novel from Patrick Ness came from some notes left behind by the late author Siobhan Dowd. Patrick was asked if he wanted to take her idea and complete it and he did so deciding to "Run with it. Make trouble." We should all be glad he did.

The books protagonist is Conor O'Malley, a 13 year old boy whose mother is suffering from cancer. His best friend Lily spread the news around his class making him a target for bullying, and now he is fighting a stress war on two fronts at home and at school. He has been having a recurrent nightmare and is then visited repeatedly by a monster at night transformed from a yew tree in the back garden

The book reminded me initially of both 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens and 'The Savage' by David Almond, the latter dealing with similar themes. As it progresses the novel comes entirely into its own and makes itself extraordinary.

There was so much about the book I felt was true. I loved the depiction of Harry, the bully, intelligent enough to realise that ignoring someone and pretending they don't exist is a far worse torment than punches or insults. I experienced that in my own youth, any teenage girl can tell you how effective it is. I remember at its height trying to make myself invisible, making sure I didn't put my hand up for questions I knew the answer to, hiding in loos in between lessons. Conor's experience was very real to me. Thinking of it me trying to make myself invisible was ridiculous as I was anything but inconspicuous.

I have read opinion online that this book is 'too scary' for young people. The people who say this are wrong and have a rosy tinted view of what childhood ought to be without sight of what childhood often is. Children in 2011 are far more worldly wise than we would give them credit for, and some have experienced far worse things than a children's book could ever depict. I, for one, think it's admirable to find a young adult book that isn't overly saccharine and sanitized with clean, smiley resolution. They are becoming more and more rare as publishers take less risks. Certainly if it helps any child deal with issues of death and grief and others to understand that experience that can only be a positive thing, and particularly if they find elements of their own story reflected within.

A particular favourite part of this book for me was the monsters stories, neither black nor white, characters with both good and bad in them. I think too often with children or young adults simplistic thinking is encouraged, exact definitions of what and indeed who is right and wrong rather than viewing the world as it exists in multiple shades of grey.

I have to say that this book made me cry. It is the first book since 'Home' by Marilynne Robinson to do so and therefore it is in good company. It didn't just make me shed a few moved tears either, but it made me actually cry proper noisy tears that made me cover my face with my hands. My grandmother, who was much beloved by me died of cancer when I was 21 and there was a certain moment when I identified with the emotions of Conor so much that it took me straight back to her bedside and made me relive certain experiences.  This book deals with the truths of grieving in a way that Didion's 'Year Of Magical Thinking' does not come close to reaching.

I have only one criticism and it is of one word used only once in the novel. That word is 'spaz' quite possibly my least favourite word in the history of the English Language. I don't criticise its inclusion from a standpoint of 'political correctness gone mad' but because that word was the bane of my childhood and youth. I was hypersensitive to it because i have cerebral palsy. Whenever I hear or see it it's a bit like getting slapped. My own feeling about the word spaz is a personal thing but its also not very nice. I hear it hardly ever now among young people and thought it had died a death, becoming a relic of the Eighties replaced by other insult words most notably 'gay.' I'm not saying that's a great development either though. I heard it a lot recently on the Channel 4 series 'The Inbetweeners' too. It has left me questioning whether it is being written in as an insult in today's writing because it was the main insult of the school era of the 70's/80's in which today's adult writers attended school. Therefore being one they remember rather than a reflection of current school yard banter today. I do hope its the latter and the world has moved on, but maybe it hasn't, which is a shame.  If it's a genuine reflection of 2011 insults then that's a separate issue relating to novels reflecting realism but I have to say I question it.

With that one and distinctly personal criticism aside, I think 'A Monster Calls' is a wonderful book and any book with the power to move someone in the way it did me has to be extraordinary. The way in which it poses interesting moral questions at young people leading to the revelation that it does is something special. In a recent email to a friend I suggested she read Patrick Ness and called him 'probably the best writer of young adult fiction writing today' This book does nothing but back this assertion up. 9.5/10

(.5 off for spaz)

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