A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness
Original Publishing Date: September 27, 2011
Length: 215 pages
Publisher: Walker Books
Obtained Via: Borrowed from the library
Format Read In: Hardback
View at the Traffic light:
The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.
But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth.
Please note: I have pulled some quotes from this book that come at the end of the review, just because my review had to be so personal for me to really get the point across. In that regards, it’s a bit spoiler-y. I tried to do without, but this book struck such a personal note for me that my review didn’t really make sense without that.
This isn’t really a review in the traditional sense–it’s more of a personal reflection on why this book struck me so deeply and so emotionally in a vulnerable place. So in the traditional review sense, just know that A Monster Calls is a Very Good Book®. Wonderfully written, spot-on characterization, etc. There’s a reason that the average rating on Goodreads for this book is something insane like 4.33 or something. So if you want a review in the more traditional sense of the word, I’ll direct you to Leanne and Asti, since they already did a terrific job of that.
All that to say, however, that these considerations were secondary to me in reading this book. If I had to put something in a time capsule to send to myself at age 16, back in 2007, I would put A Monster Calls in that capsule and nothing else. As I may have mentioned before, my mother died of cancer when I was sixteen in March of 2008. So you can see why A Monster Calls struck a nerve with me, since so much of this book is about Conor, at about the same age I was, facing the truth about his mother’s cancer.
And I could relate only too well. As far as portrayals of grief and suffering and CONFLICT go, I can not think of a single book that explored the concepts better than Ness did in A Monster Calls. My heart went out to Conor, and yet, some part of me didn’t want it to. Because I know how it feels to be pitied and especially pity-given things you didn’t earn or get off the hook easily just because someone in your family is staring down that diseased-ridden C-word. So why I sometimes just wanted to hug him, I also wanted to say, “You’re right. It sucks that you get all this special treatment for THAT reason. You can do anything, and that should be cool, but you just wish you’d get in trouble all the time if it could save her.”
A Monster Calls gets at so many of the best things about stories. The theme of a purpose of a story is one that is woven throughout this book. None of the stories told have clear-cut morals. They don’t fly in with a single takeaway and save the day or Conor’s mental state. But there’s no denying the stories and the words have power. They certainly did for me.
“And if, one day,” She said, really crying now, “You look back and you feel bad for being so angry, if you feel bad for being so angry at me that you couldn’t even speak to me, then you have to know, Conor, you have to know that it was okay. It was okay.”
This, is one book passage, is everything I wanted, or maybe even needed, someone to say to me when I was sixteen. It was the thing that perhaps could have set me free from the four years of guilt I did carry around for being angry, and for feeling that what I did hadn’t mattered. It was everything I imagined someone saying to me, but never did in real life.
And that is why I think this book is so colossally important. So often when I read books that deal with cancer and grief, they are one of a few things. They tend to be:
- Emotionally manipulative.
- One-toned emotional.
I’m not sure how to explain one-toned emotional better, except that so often, books about grief touch on only an all-encompassing sadness. And for me, grief was never quite like that. There was sadness, yes, but also anger and guilt and shame for not being a better person through it all(though I had no way to measure that). Even books that deal with grief in a better way, like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, still have that one-tone emotion for me.
But A Monster Calls never tried to hide those multiple layers of emotion. Conor was angry, and I could relate to that. Conor also felt a sense of needing to be punished, of not wanting to tell the truth about how he was, and well, I could relate to that too.
“You were merely wishing for the end of pain, the monster said. Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.
“I didn’t mean it,” Conor said.
Conor sniffed and looked up to its face, which was as big as a wall in front of him. “How can both be true?”
Because humans are complicated beasts, the monster said.”
I really think the moment when I had a similar realization as Conor was one of the worst of my life. I felt so much self-loathing, because who has the absence of moral fiber to wish for the end of their own pain when a loved one is suffering? But what Conor was told then– “You did mean that, but also didn’t”– took four years for someone to tell me in my life, before that moment I could forgive myself.
Yes, we are quite complicated beasts. And that’s part of why this story works so well. It doesn’t offer the reader a platitude of “Here is the moral of the story.”
But it does offer up an elusive nugget of truth. And more importantly, ask readers to tell the truth ourselves. It’s not always easy. This book, which I think I’ve explained why it touched me so much, made me dig back into some truth I’ve long kept hidden because it’s easier to deal with that way. But reading this book was one of those rare reading experiences. I think we all have those books, every once in a while, we felt was written directly to us. A Monster Calls was one of those books for me. It really was the story I needed to hear when I was a teenager, and I can only think of how important this book may be to someone going through a similar situation.
Final Impression: I think it’s pretty obvious that this book was immediately important to me. In short, if you haven’t read this, you’re missing out. One of those rare books I felt just fit into my life so well. 5/5 cupcakes.