A Monster Calls is a book that should have fallen through the cracks of my life. My children are adults and my grandchildren still too young for this gripping and mournful tale. But that’s the thing about great stories: they’re ageless.
Even though you’ll find Patrick Ness’s novel in the Young Adult section of your local library or bookstore, it belongs on everyone’s bookshelf.
Ness’s novel called to me. The hardcover edition is a gorgeous object, and I think that matters here, more than in most stories. It may be the perfect union of words and images, because just one look at the atmospheric, looming and breathtaking cover illustration (by Jim Kay) of a towering creature making its way toward a desolate house was enough for me to grasp that this was a story about fear, pain, sadness and most certainly great loneliness. And I felt that the monster was frightening not because he was menacing, but because he was inescapable.
This beautiful book and the story it tells are part of a more personal narrative of loss and collaboration. The original idea for A Monster Calls belongs to celebrated author Siobhan Dowd who died, at the age of 47, of breast cancer. In a note at the beginning of his book, Patrick Ness explains how he was asked by his editor (who was also Dowd’s), whether he would consider turning her notes into a novel. He accepted, and explains: “I had only a single guideline: to write a book I think Siobhan would have liked. No other criteria really mattered.”
A Monster Calls is the harrowing story of Conor O’Malley, a thirteen-year-old boy whose father has moved away and whose mother is slowly dying of cancer. It’s just the two of them, and Conor’s coming of age is being shaped by the demands of caring for his mother and himself, as best he can, while he holds onto the hope of better days ahead and continues to go through the motions of life at school.
There’s a nightmare that lurks on the edges of his consciousness, a terrible secret that he cannot admit to himself concerning the imminent loss of his mother. Though he struggles to keep it at bay during the day, it emerges every night, disturbing his sleep, and the reader begins to wonder how much Conor can endure; how long he can hold his lonely and difficult life together.
Then, one night, at 12:07 precisely, he is visited by a monster: part giant, part ancient yew tree, that appears as though summoned. The snarling, surly creature would terrify anyone, but it does not have this effect on Conor. The monster claims to have stories to tell the boy, and so it does, over a series of midnight appearances.
Nothing is easy between the boy and the monster, and nothing about its parables is reassuring. And yet, Conor learns to anticipate the creature’s visits, even as they begin to spill into his daily life, wreaking their own form of havoc.
A Monster Calls is a story about every mother’s and every child’s deepest fear. It’s about the fearlessness and wisdom required to face life’s most profound truths.
Finally, I think it shows that you’re never too old to be a young reader. In a BBC interview , speaking of this very aspect of his book, Patrick Ness reveals that:
“Adults actually have a tougher time than younger readers do,” […] “Adults have more experience of loss and more experience of the fear of loss.”
“I hear from lots of young readers who love it and like being moved by it, but adult readers come up and say: ‘This actually happened to someone I know.’”
The borders between us as readers are as artificial as the rest of those that human beings erect so unfailingly.
NOTE TO READERS