I apologize that this post is late. We were having some technical difficulties last night and weren’t able to get the pictures ready in time.
As the first day of the 7 days/7 books challenge, I felt it fitting to begin with one of my personal favorites. A Monster Calls is one of the few books on my short list, and one for which I have never heard a bad word spoken. I first read this book for a YA Lit class several semesters ago and upon looking at the cover and reading the back I felt it would be a terrible representation of the YA horror genre. As it turns out I was right: this is a horrible representation of the horror genre because it is in no way frightening in that sense. However, it is a great YA drama that captures pain, sorrow, and loss and demonstrates the healing power available to those struggling with through any.
Every night Conor falls asleep only to be plagued by a single nightmare, a nightmare that first appeared shortly after his mother began her cancer treatments, and every day he wakes up to confront the torture of school where everyone treats him like a china doll on a precipice. But one night a monster visits Conor, though not the one he was expecting. This monster has come walking, and Conor is the reason. It is a creature of untamed power and wisdom and he is looking for truth; Conor’s truth, and it will not stop until it has it.
So I’ll get to the story, the writing, and the awesomeness that is A Monster Calls, but first the illustrations deserve a bit of praise.
The style is unique, and therefor fits the story perfectly. I’m not an artist, but the pictures are impressive tools for focusing on important moments and fueling the emotional reactions that I felt. It might be a stretch, but I don’t think this book would be the same without the illustrations, mainly in regards to the monster. He is described as being formed from a tree, and with this image in mind I can think of several tree creatures including the Ents from The Lord of the Rings and the Whomping Willow from Harry Potter that could have changed how I imagined the monster, and as a result would have changed the feeling of the book. But because of the illustrations, I could see the monster exactly as Ness intended for me to see it.
Now, on to the story; there are two arguments that can be made for this book: one, the monster is a real monster and/or a divine entity that has come to teach Conor what he needs in order to heal; or second, the monster is a manifestation of Conor’s mind to provide meaning to a traumatic situation. Reading it through for the second time I was on the look out for any hints or details that would tip me one way or the other. As far as I could tell nothing popped out. Personally I lean toward the belief that it was a divine manifestation or ancient being because I am a fantasy lover and that is what my brain goes back to on reflex. Though I’m open to anyone who has read it and wants to debate the contrary. I’m always open for a good debate, especially if I’m wrong.
The intrigue about what is really going on in this book is one of the reasons it’s a personal favorite, but certainly not the only reason. I do enjoy a good puzzle, but the emotional impact is powerful and adds to the appeal. Everything that Conor has to go through is felt so intensely because we have a deeper understanding of what it’s doing to him. As I was reading today, a quote came to mind from Thanhha Lai’s, Inside Out and Back Again: “The pity giver feels better, never the pity receiver.” All too often people who want to help those living with grief don’t know how to react and inadvertently begin treating them differently. The result? A feeling of ostracization is now added to the grief or pain of any such individual. This is a part of grief that I don’t see addressed all that often, but Patrick Ness hit the nail on the head. I’ve had feelings of being alone in a crowd, invisible to everyone around me, or like Conor, where I’ve felt so aware of others being cautious around me that it makes me feel vulnerable and isolated. And I think everyone, and I mean everyone, has probably felt these things at some point in their life. But the reason it’s so hard to know how to help people feeling like this is because we think there needs to be something new added to the equation. The reality is the opposite; the one suffering needs people to treat him or her like they always have so that he or she can feel normal and escape the negative feelings for a while. Throughout the story the only ones to treat Conor normally are his mother and the monster, and one of them is dying while the other one might be a figment of his imagination. With that kind of daily existence it’s little wonder that Conor begins to resent the world.
The overlaying event of this story is the monster. During his time with Conor, the monster (he doesn’t have any other name that sticks) shares a series of stories. Each story seems rather obvious in terms of what happens and who are in the wrong, but not really. At the end of each tale the monster surprises Conor with what was really going on, and during my first reading I was just as surprised. The reason why this book is on my short list and not just my list of favorites is because each story, including Conor’s story, caused me to rethink how I viewed the world. That is not something that happens often.
I firmly believe that everyone should read this book at least once, because at some point everyone has, or will have, experienced loss and the gut-wrenching pain that accompanies it and A Monster Calls is just the book to relate to when you’re burdened with that. I think this book forces us to reexamine the events in our lives that have caused us so much grief. I felt I could relate to Conor in his initial denial of truth because I’ve experienced it in my own life. Conor’s struggle to come to terms with the thing he dreads most in the world is exactly what each of us can relate to, because we all have our inner monsters and we all have a deepest fear.
Good luck with your reading this week.