A Monster Calls – a book review
Title: A Monster Calls
Author: Patrick Ness
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2011
Price: $10.00 (CDN)
I was hooked on this excellent book from the opening line: “The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”
For me, that’s an opening line right up there with, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”, and given how many times I’ve read that particular book…
Ness’s story focuses on Conor, a 13 year old boy whose mother is going through medical treatments for an unspecified illness – I thought “cancer” as I read – and about Conor’s recurring nightmares since the treatments began. On this particular night, at 12:07 am, Conor meets the monster for the first time when it comes to his bedroom window: it is “something wild, something ancient” in the form of the yew tree that normally sits in the centre of the graveyard on a hill near Conor’s house.
The tree monster tells him in no uncertain terms: “I have come to get you, Conor O’Malley.”
Conor’s story is accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Jim Kay, and our first look at the monster shows a wild and almost primitive looking monster; the kind that isn’t borne out of watching too many silly slasher and zombie films, but the kind that comes from your very deepest and most primitive fears. Looking at the drawings, I thought, “Somewhere, in the history of the human species, there were people living in caves who were probably drawing pictures of the exact same monster.” This monster is older than time and more wild – and when it goes walking in the world, it goes in search of truth. And not just the easy truths; the difficult ones that make you squirm uncomfortably, the ones that make you feel sick to your stomach with holding them in; the ones that can set you free if you’re brave enough to give them a voice.
I don’t want to spoil the plot entirely, but I think it’s safe to reveal that the monster wreaks all the havoc you expect of monsters, while also moving Conor toward facing his nightmare and revealing his truth both to the monster and himself. To this end, the monster tells Conor three tales, and Conor is expected to provide the fourth tale – the deep truth of his nightmare and his feelings about it.
I was particularly struck by something the monster tells Conor:
Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truth that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.
This is something that hit home for me personally. I have lied to myself times without number about so many things: relationships, career choices, my own wants and needs…you name it, I’ve probably lied to myself about it at some point with varying degrees of success. And what the monster says is true, your mind does punish you for believing both – punishes you with misery, anger, longing, resentment, jealousy, bad habits, self-destructive behaviour…all negative things that could have been avoided by choosing truth. But, our ability to lie to ourselves is unparalleled and we seem to need to do it – even though it offers none of the comfort it so implicitly promises.
My own experience is that admitting those uncomfortable truths has never resulted in anything truly awful happening – even though I was sure it would involve my whole world falling apart. More often than not, things have become simpler and easier by admitting the truth. Looking back, I can see that the longer I waited to tell the truth (to myself or others), the more I made a mess of things and hurt myself and others. Yet, I still have to come to this knowledge the hard way over and over again.
When my friend first loaned me this book, I thought it might be just a really good kid’s tale, I wasn’t expecting it to reveal anything that would make me think quite so much; but A Monster Calls is a tale for everyone, no matter their age. The monster tells Conor he isn’t there to teach him lessons in niceness, or other fairy tale moralities, and upon reflection, I agree – I didn’t learn a moral lesson at all, I learned Conor’s truth, and I remembered that admitting my own has actually done me a lot of good in ways the not-so-comforting-after-all lies never did, or could.