Second Look: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (inspired by Siobhan Dowd)

The Story: Every night, 13-year-old Conor wakes up screaming from an unfinished nightmare. One night after his nightmare, Conor wakes up at 12:07 to find a monster in the shape of an ancient yew tree coming towards him from his backyard. But Conor is not afraid, because Conor has seen scarier things, especially in his nightmares. Scary things haunt his real life too: Conor’s mother has terminal cancer and is getting worse by the day.

Conor’s monster has a purpose. He will tell Conor three tales, and when the third tale has been told Conor must tell the monster a fourth tale. It must be the truth about his nightmare, something Conor can’t bear to even think about, let alone say out loud. As his mother’s health declines, Conor’s life becomes more and more volatile at home, at school, and in his head. Somehow he must confront his demons, and summon the strength to tell the fourth, and most traumatizing, tale.

The Low Down: Before Siobhan Dowd died in 2007 of breast cancer, she had the makings of this story in mind. She had the core plot, the characters, and the beginning of the story mapped out. Dowd approached Patrick Ness and told him to run with it. And did he ever.

I don’t have enough good things to say about this book. Conor’s pain through the entire book is palpable and builds in intensity as the story progresses. First he must deal with his mother’s worsening condition and subsequent hospitalization, which results in his grandmother coming to visit, who he does not get a long with. Then his absent father (who is living across the pond in America with his new wife and baby) comes back home to England to spend time with Conor and Conor’s mother. The bullying at school also gets worse as Conor struggles to get through each day and tries to deal with hits that keep on coming. The realism of the situation is what hits home, as we get some insight into the mind of a young boy who is scared for his dying mother. Oh, yea. And then there’s this monster…

The monster insists on telling Conor three tales which leave Conor very unsatisfied. Interestingly, the monster isn’t so scary and actually becomes more of a gentle, friendly antagonist. Conor isn’t scared of him, isn’t impressed by his stories, and doesn’t understand why the monster has come calling for him. What Conor doesn’t realize is that these tales are the monster’s way of preparing him for the inevitable. The monster is very real to Conor, but as the story moves on we learn that the monster is allegorical (hooray for highfalutin literary terms!) He can be viewed as the personification of Conor’s coping who helps him through the worst of his pain. I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry like a little girl when Conor tells the fourth tale.

The Bottom Line: Patrick Ness nailed this one. There wasn’t one thing I didn’t like about it. The story is overwhelmingly powerful and beautifully written. Jim Kay’s artwork is gorgeous and perfectly represents the harsh reality of Conor’s situation. Ness’s words cut right to the painful heartbreak of watching a loved one die of cancer. The story, brilliant as it is, may have been inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, but Ness managed to make it his own without disrespecting Dowd’s writing style in any way. Heart wrenching and poignant, this is definitely not a light, fun read, but absolutely recommended. Props to Ness for crafting a beautiful homage to Dowd after her passing in 2007.



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