“Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is more than a book. It is a work of art that will break your heart and ask of you: What are the fears that come and haunt you in the dead of night?
When the cancer treatment began for his mum, the nightmares began for thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley. Tonight, however, a different nightmare than the one he expects has paid a visit. A monster, wild, ancient and terrible, is knocking on his window and it means business. By day, Conor tries to cope with his mother’s illness, a strict grandmother and relentless bullies at school. By night, the monster visits and tells him stories of old. The monster wants something in return, however. It wants the truth.
The original idea for this story was created by author Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer before she could see it brought to life. After her death, Patrick Ness was asked to take on the spark that Dowd had ignited and form it into what is now A Monster Calls. And what a masterpiece he made of it.
The titular monster is the driving force of the book. By day, it appears as an old yew tree in the cemetery behind Conor’s house. In the dead of night, it comes to terrifying life as a tree-creature, with skin of leaves and teeth of bark. The unique voice of the monster evokes wisdom and ancientness as it tells three fables that will help Conor to heal, even if it has an infuriatingly cryptic way of going about it.
Conor’s own feelings of dread are manifested in the ominous tone of the book, but there are spikes of humour as he reacts to events with the sharp wit of boy who has become deft at dealing with darkness. After his first encounter with the monster, he reflects, “Only a baby would believe that a tree – seriously, a tree – had walked down the hill and attacked the house.”
One of the more unusual features of the book is the use of illustrations. Jim Kay brings the words on the page to life with smoky artwork that captures the tone so perfectly that there feels to be an symbioses between words and pictures that creates a unique and utterly captivating reading experience.
A Monster Calls is an exquisite piece of storytelling but if you need more than my opinion to convince you, take it from the experts – the novel won the Carnegie Medal in 2012, the most prestigious award for children’s literature in the UK. This was the second consecutive win for Patrick Ness who was awarded the prize in 2011 for the spectacular Monsters of Men.
With a film adaptation in the making and such big names as Liam Neeson and Sigourney Weaver on board, the real question is whether an adaptation could ever do justice to this poignant, haunting and transcendent novel. Personally, I think the task is insurmountable.