Conor O'Malley's mother has been sick for some time. The treatments are brutal, and he's often left on his own to get himself up, fed and on to school. The few times he's had to stay at his grandmother's house have not been pleasant, as her place isn't really a place for kids. School is lousy as well, despite the loyal friendship of Lily, Conor's being bullied by a particularly nasty boy named Harry. And his dad is mostly absent, living with his new family in the United States; Conor hasn't seen him in a couple years. He's plagued by a recurring nightmare.
And then the monster shows up, at 12:07 a.m. It emerges from the yew tree that guards the ancient churchyard across from his house and it's kind of threatening. It announces that it will tell Conor three true stories from its own past, and then Conor will have to tell him one. Conor's not quite sure why it's visiting him -- and he's kind of disappointed in the stories -- but he soon comes to believe that it's here to save his mum. But, of course, it's not. It's here to save Conor. But before Conor can be saved, he's got to face some deeply painful truths. Foremost: his mum's not sick, she's dying. Second, perhaps: Is Conor a (the) monster?
Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy was an amazing invention of a post-apocalyptic, apartheid-istic society trying ever harder to destroy itself. One boy stood between hope and destruction. The despair there -- particularly in the third installment -- was occasionally unbearable. In A Monster Calls, Ness shrinks his stage to one familiar to way too many people -- the inexorable death of too-young loved ones -- but it's still down to one boy and a lot of despair. Conor's situation is so realistic that it's often painful to read: A lot of us know Conor. I do.
I've read a lot of discussion about the audience for this novel. I won't give it to my dear young friend Marie whose father (also dear to me) died not quite a year ago, but I sure am curious about what she'd think about it if she did read it. I imagine that the wound is too raw at this point, even though she's faced what Conor faced, to want to read about it. She'll stick to Inheritance, thank you. But she might want to read it later. I certainly think it's a spot-on description of what it's like to live with a beloved who is dying. But will those who have directly experienced it want to read about it? And if they don't, who does want to read it? Fans like me of the two authors. We aren't disappointed.
Among it's many themes, the novel is about the power of stories and stories always feel more vivid when read aloud. Isaacs has a deep voice that he lightens slightly for Conor's and his mum's dialog. He shines as the monster, dropping his register even more and all but growling the dialog. He'll shout, commandingly, when Conor isn't properly respectful. And Isaacs knows how to tell a good story, his delivery of the monster's three tales has a tension and pacing that helps keep you listening. There is nothing cuddly about this guy; it shows no sympathy at Conor's situation. Listening to Conor's suffering as the novel ends is pretty heartwrenching, but also cathartic.
I did want to pause to process the ending -- which first felt abrupt, but almost immediately felt just right. The audiobook continues with an interview between author and narrator which -- in hindsight -- I should have taken a break before listening to it. I was still back with Conor while Ness and Isaacs were speaking. Isaacs -- who appeared to be interviewing Ness after having read the book but before he began recording it -- wanted to know if Ness had experienced such a loss himself and the author declined to answer. Even though I wanted to know this as well, his book speaks for itself, and rightly so.
Ness also reads the author's note that begins the book. He views Dowd's idea and original notes as a baton passed to him for him to run with, to do with what he liked; not to try and imagine what she would have made of it. His modesty, and yet his honest confidence in his own story, is refreshing to hear. And as much as I've enjoyed all of Dowd's books, I'm glad that Ness stayed true to himself. I like to believe that she would have approved of what he did.
The book has been amply illustrated by Jim Kay; even though I didn't miss seeing the illustrations (as occasionally happens when I listen to an illustrated book, the listening experience ably substitutes for the visual one), I wanted to provide a link to his website, where he has posted many of the artworks he created for A Monster Calls.
[The photograph of an ancient yew tree in a English churchyard was taken by Penny Mayes as part of the geograph.org.uk project. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
A Monster Calls (Inspired by a idea from Siobhan Dowd) by Patrick Ness
Narrated by Jason Isaacs
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 3:59