A few days ago, Thursday to be precise, I sat down in a Barnes and Noble and read this novella cover to cover. I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t deciding that day that I was going to read 200 pages in one sitting. But I did. I could not put this down. I had heard from a few people that I needed to read this. But I didn’t realize that it was going to be as gut-wrenching as it ended up being.
Patrick Ness‘s A Monster Calls is very beautifully illustrated by Jim Kay, who also is currently the artist involved with the new illustrated editions of the Harry Potter series. These mixed-media images, which, according to the inside jacket: “use everything from beetles to bread boards to create interesting marks and textures” are gorgeous and haunting.
They remind me of the superb illustrations, by Stephen Gammell, from the chilling series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. When I was much younger, those images, coupled with the stories, scared me so incredibly. I could barely open the book without imagining the drawings come to life.
In A Monster Calls, the monster looks barely pieced together, as if the yew tree that he is from was dashed apart and slapped together as if the purpose of the monster is not in the scariness of him, but in the fact that he is there at all.
Apparently, this story was originally conceived by Young Adult author Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness took it upon himself to finish the creation. According to an interview with the BBC, Ness felt initially weird on taking on the piece:
“I would normally say ‘no’ to turning someone else’s idea into a book,” admits Ness. “But the idea was so strong and so vivid that I never felt like I was completely fabricating something she didn’t want. There was just enough material to kick me off, and have the freedom to let the story live and breathe while also celebrating her idea.”
What is endearing about this story is the struggles that thirteen-year-old Conor goes through: his loneliness, his purposeful self-sufficiency, his estrangement from his fleeing father, and dealing with the imminent death of his cancer-stricken mother. He is trying to live a normal life and yet everyone at school tries to give him a wide-berth, or make excuses for him, because of his sick mom.
The monster attempts to tell Conor stories in order for him to piece together his own feelings about what is happening to his mom. Conor finds the monster mostly annoying and completely stupid because the stories seem, at first, to be total nonsense. It isn’t until the end that Conor discovers the true purpose of the monster and it is wonderful and awful.
To me, that is the best kind of story. The hard truths and the bitterness coupled with the fantastical and other-worldly. It placed everything I wanted in a nice, neat, little book.