In days gone by, unknown parts of the world were marked on maps with the designation "Here Be Monsters." Now we have mapped the world, but when it comes to dealing with grief, loss, and guilt, there still "be" monsters in our minds. With A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness has given us the terrible beauty of a timeless parable.
Ness (author of the transcendent Chaos Walking trilogy) wrote A Monster Calls based on a story idea by Irish author Siobhan Dowd, who succumbed to breast cancer before she was able to turn the idea into a full-fledged book. He is aided in this by the gorgeous illustrations of Jim Kay.
Conor, thirteen, is visited by an ancient monster, one who insists he has been summoned by Conor. A monster? “Monsters were for babies. Monsters were for bedwetters.” A dream, probably. A nightmare, surely. But the monster calls again, insistently, a remnant of the wild earth, interrupting the silence that envelops Conor’s life—the other monsters everyone sees and no one wants to talk about. An unapproachable grandmother, an absentee father, bullies at school, a dying mother. And silence is precisely what the monster will not allow. He demands Conor hear three tales, and then demands that Conor tell his own tale, one whose brutal truth Conor cannot even admit to himself.
The tales the monster provides for Conor illustrate the complicated nature of goodness, and push us toward an ending that is unsparing in its inevitability. Ness provides a depth of sentiment I have rarely encountered in a book meant for teens, and manages to entirely avoid mawkishness. I am comfortable admitting that I cried (cried for Conor, cried for his mother, cried for my own father and his battle with cancer) through most of the final seventy pages. And if you read this book and do not cry, then I do not want to know you.
Ness gives us permission to feel what everyone dealing with grief needs to feel: sadness, of course, but also anger. As Conor’s mother tells him, “And if you need to break things, then by God you break them good and hard.” Too often we deny the anger that accompanies grief, and no one needs to hear that being angry is acceptable more than young men (or boys, for let’s be honest, we all become children again when dealing with grief). Hemingway told us how “(T)he world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” A Monster Calls broke me, and I hope it breaks you too, so that you, like me, and like Conor, can become stronger in the broken places.
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