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{book} a monster calls

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd

Illustrated by Jim Kay

Candlewick Press, 2011.

hardcover, 206 pages (ages 12+)

I had been warned and still I read it before bed. I had been warned that hankies would come in handier than a well-lit room. That terror subsides for grief, and not just thematically.

While A Monster Calls is not what one would expect as a traditional R.eader’s I.mbibing P.eril (RIP) read it is perfect for autumn into winter. It has the ingredients of a RIP read: a monster does call, more than one actually, and there are nightmares, death, murder, witches, bleeding, and creepy tales… and there is an unnamed terror that when it comes to light you understand its horror, how it tormented the hero, how that monster could be more terrifying than the one inhabiting the yew tree. It’s just not chilling in the usual way, nor thrilling in any way other than the kind we find in a really well-crafted story. But it is one you shouldn’t stay up with while everyone has long since fallen asleep and all the lights but yours are out.

At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting– he’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It’s ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth. From the final idea of award-winning author Siobhan Dowd– whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself– Patrick Ness has spun a haunting and darkly funny novel of mischief, loss, and monsters both real and imagined.—publisher’s synopsis.

A Monster Calls is a thin volume and heavier than it looks, paper and pages weighted for gorgeous illustrations by Jim Kay. Patrick Ness doesn’t need any more words than he’s found the spin truly impressive tale of a boy dealing with his single mother’s illness. Conor’s father has a new family in the U.S., his maternal grandmother is hard, there are bullies at school, concerned teachers, an ex-close friend, and a monster who keeps showing up to have a talk with him—but then, of all the people who would “have a talk” this monster is the most relentless—nearly as relentless as the other monster.

The monster who walks, who comes to call is ancient and wild. He has many names (34) and can take many forms but he prefers the yew tree (a very complicated symbol). The monster finds stories to be powerful and as wild as he and he wants to hear Conor’s story. Conor is not keen on the idea, but he bides his time as the monster wants to share three tales of his own first. The tales are exquisite and their outcomes baffle Conor. As they find correlation with the things going on at home and school, Conor’s life adds further consideration to the tales—and deepen the mystery surrounding Conor’s repetitive nightmare.

There is an aspect to the story that brought to mind Adam Haslett’s short story “The Beginnings of Grief,” it is where Conor seeks out punishment, not actively per se, but he actually looks forward to blows from the school bullies. He wants to see justice mete out in the tales, the more destructive the better. But he seems immune from punishment from others (and eventually all), who always counter with: “What purpose could that possibly serve?” The question follows the Monster’s tales as well.   A Monster Calls and its tale(s) talks also about power, isolation, (in)visibility, belief and guilt—and to what end? That is what Conor wants to know and what he is not sure is possible or even deserved.

Much of the pleasure of the read is not only the clever weaving of this tale, but the characters who populate it–the Monster and Conor foremost. For all the weight they give the story, the characters drive the action that buoys the story pursuing it with mounting dread–and increasing relief. The more out of control things seem to spiral the greater the optimism that it will all soon be over, one way or another.

I know I have not done my best with this review as I really hope anyone and everyone would read it, at least once. It has the dark and the mischief and the raging that is so extraordinary to experience in Patrick Ness’ writing.

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recommendations: 12 & up, boys and girls, and not necessarily only someone experienced with or experiencing grief, fans of David Almond as he came to mind with this one; those who love tales.

A RIP VII read

{those loverly dark images belong to Jim Kay}