Patrick Ness’s book, A Monster Calls, has had a lot of recognition for a long while now. It is a multi-award winning book, and the film adaptation (starring Liam Neeson, among many) is soon to be released. I was immediately attracted to the version illustrated by Jim Kay (he is also the artist for the new Harry Potter illustrated editions!), and I would strongly encourage anyone interested in the book to read this stunning version. Interestingly, the original idea for A Monster Calls was actually created by author Siobhan Dowd, who sadly died before finishing her last piece of work. Being presented with this idea, Patrick Ness took it and played with the idea to produce the brilliant book the world is so fond of today.
A Monster Calls follows Conor O’Malley, a thirteen year old boy whose mother we quickly learn is undergoing treatment for a certain illness. One night, shortly after midnight, Conor is visited by a monster; a dark and ancient being who explicitly states that Conor has in fact called for him. Conor however, fears little from this monster, with his darkest fear being a specific, terrifying nightmare which he is unable to face. The novel follows the ensuing events surrounding Conor, and the ways in which this monster is able to help him face the unbearable truth.
I thought the structure of the novel was cleverly done. There are no numbered chapter titles, but instead the chapters are named various things which go some way to explaining the events within that section. Examples of this include ‘Breakfast’, ‘School’, and ‘Life Writing’. I felt that this worked effectively, as not only does it reflect the mindset of a younger child, but also makes the book itself accessible to younger readers with its self-explanatory titles. Likewise, the story itself starts immediately with the introduction of the monster, allowing the attention of both mature and younger reader’s to be captured.
Patrick Ness has also written the book in such a way that there is a lot of speech, and I whole heartedly agree with this decision. It allowed the story to maintain a fluid pace, keeping momentum whilst simultaneously allowing the feelings of Conor to shine through. Additionally, whilst I have not read any of Ness’s other works, my impression from this book was that he is a very skilled writer, capable of creating and sustaining a child’s voice, feelings and impressions of life in an authentic way.
For older readers, it will be immediately clear that Conor’s mother is suffering from Cancer, and undergoing various treatments in a bid to survive her diagnose. This is not a spoiler, as it is made explicitly clear, and done in a very tactful way to any readers suffering with similar events themselves. The book also allows younger readers to grasp the truth at a slightly easier pace. Whilst this book deals with turbulent emotions and moments which (thankfully) most children will not have to experience, it also showcases the more mundane necessities of life, including friendship, school and bullies. Cancer may turn your world upside down, but the great irony is that life continues for everyone else, regardless of your situation.
I went into this book expecting it to be quite fantastical. What I was not expecting, and thoroughly loved, was the fairytale/fable-esque themes which were prominent throughout the story. The monster is presented as a sentient being, whose ancient life allows him a wealth of knowledge. Through him, Ness uses meta-fiction, giving us stories within stories. Many of the inner stories have a rich fairytale and fable tradition which I feel would be appealing to younger readers, and also fondly reminiscent for older ones. The monster is also used to allow readers to recognise the complexities of humanity and human emotions, reminding us that things are not always clear cut, and that ambiguity surrounds the world.
Quit often illustrations exist to compliment a story, adding a layer of extra richness. This was not the case here. The illustrations are absolutely perfect, and I felt that they were not only worthy of equal weighting when compared to the story, but actually able to stand up as an independent piece of creative work in their own right. Dark, haunting and grippingly intense, Jim Kay’s images are a wealth of skill displayed on luxuriantly glossy pages. They have an inky, charcoal appearance, with some images appearing abstract in tone, whilst others are clearly identifiable. I strongly felt that the images perfectly captured the rage and anger which surround Cancer, but still managed to contain an eerie beauty which, in essence, captures the very core of the story.
I flew through this story in one enraptured sitting. It truly is a beautifully heartbreaking story about grief and love, and the ways this emotional cocktail mixes to produce such poignant moments and emotions. It presents various ways in which grief can present itself, and reminds us that it is okay to feel that you are not in control, and to feel that you cannot cope. I myself am currently watching a family member fight against Cancer, and I felt that the book is able to capture the all encompassing bleakness, but also the sparks of genuine love which arise from such a horrific situation. In conclusion, this is a story which has all the feelings of a ready made classic piece of literature; a multilayered children’s book easily accessible to all ages.
Publisher: Walker Books