Patrick Ness's expansion and completion of Siobhan Dowd's story concept, in conjunction with Jim Kay's gorgeous illustrations, unite to form one of the best novels I have read this year. The book is further proof that the young adult market is enticing some of today's most talented writers. Yes, A Monster Calls is a narrative filled with magic, but the meaning behind that magic extends way beyond a traditional fantasy narrative.
Thirteen-year-old Conor O'Malley has been having some pretty vivid dreams - but even though his visions of a looming, talking yew tree are disrupting his sleep (and sometimes his waking hours), he is relieved that they're not as scary as another, more terrifying nightmare that keeps recurring - the one that started when his mother got sick, the one he desperately tries to ignore.
In between some fairly typical elements of young teenage life - school days filled with bullying and awkward conversations with teachers; difficult relationships with his family (specifically, his grandma and his remarried, newly "Americanized" father); and the unwanted attention and compassion of a former female friend - Conor attempts to distract himself from the reality of his mother's illness. But as it becomes less avoidable, so does the presence of the monster tree and the confounding stories it tells.
Begrudgingly, Conor begins to listen to the yew monster's three promised tales, and his ability to keep his feelings under control, whether at home or at school, diminishes. Even worse, he can't seem to keep the dreaded nightmare at bay. But Conor starts to apply the contradictory elements of the monster's stories to his own relational and circumstantial difficulties. Pulling the truth out of each one is hard work, especially since they all seem to be, in Conor's words, "a cheating story... [that sounds] like it's going to be one way and then it's a total other way." The hard work eventually pays off, but not before the truth-digging exposes some truly scary monsters in Conor's life.
I will leave the plot here. Summarizing more of A Monster Calls seems unfair to its potential readers, as offering too much detail risks giving away the most important pieces of a puzzle each reader deserves to construct on his own.
Ness treats the monster and its intrusions with a delightful tongue-in-cheek tone. And while the story provides elements of fantasy and belief, the reader and the main character are also allowed to indulge their skepticism. This cleverly embedded permission for anti-suspension-of-disbelief will make what is already sure to be a crossover read more successful with world-weary adults and world-wise teens.
The Conor O'Malley character is fabulous, and Ness kept me on my toes with his endearing moments and his bouts of nastiness. This confused and hurting teen is one of the most vivid characters I've found in fiction. Perhaps he will reappear again in Ness's pages someday; I really hope so. Siobhan Dowd, Patrick Ness, and Jim Kay have produced a novel of great integrity, a book that made me want to buy multiple copies and gleefully give them away.
Watch the trailer below for a glimpse of Jim Kay's incredible illustrations in A Monster Calls.
This review was originally published in October 2011, and has been updated for the March 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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