My rating: ★★★★★
If you think The Fault in Our Stars is the hottest cancer book on the market (I beg to differ, but I digress), I may assume you haven’t met the emotional terror of A Monster Calls.
A monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
Once the quiet still of night settles, an ancient and dangerous monster comes for Conor O’Malley at seven after midnight. For Conor, however, this is not the monster he expects. A nightmare of true horrors, filled with darkness and screaming, is one that wrecks Conor into paralyzing fear. The nightmare, the true monster, began its torment after Conor’s mom started receiving cancer treatments. But this monster—the one that has come walking— is different. A wild and powerful creature, it doesn’t haunt or frighten, but what it seeks is something Conor refuses to speak. It seeks the truth.
Who am I? the monster repeated, still roaring. I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse, and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable! It brought Conor up close to its eye. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.
As his mother battles against uncertain but looming death, Conor is also coping with a father who’s moved a continent away to be with his new family. At school, he has grown used to daily beatings from his bully, Harry, while the rest of his classmates no longer acknowledge him. Back into family dynamics, Conor is also butting heads and biting tongue with his grandmother—a terse and full force of a woman. Conor only wants his life to return to the way it used to be. He wants to be left alone, but he doesn’t want to be invisible either. He wants his mother to be healthy again, and for his grandmother to exit the picture. What Conor wants, unfortunately, is not the reality he must cope with and learn to face.
The number of times I have read A Monster Calls are uncountable, but one thing is certain: no matter how many times I read this, it digs its claws in deep—slashing and ripping me into terrible and weepy little pieces. I have read this book from front to back, pouring over every word on each page, memorizing its text and illustrations that I can only describe as spellbinding with effusive wonder. But all the words in my vocabulary cannot express what this book means to me, or how deeply my affection goes for it—and this is my problem. For all of the moments it has torn me apart, I have found myself staring at a blank page an equal number of times. I felt uncertain. How do I review a masterpiece? Words fail me. Again and again, my mind stutters and nothing comes.
I have yet to lose a friend or close family member to cancer, but I am aware of loss. I am all too familiar with grief and coping. Most of all, I know the experience of bouncing back and forth in what seems like a never-ending cycle of acceptance and denial; relief and guilt. At times I have felt so defeated that hope becomes blotted out and all that’s left is a tired surrender or rumbling anger. Some of these are old wounds and others are more fresh and current—one in particular, even, is very much alive and festering—and they don’t heal, not fully. They scar and may fade, and I can bury them as deep as I like, but what I’ve come to learn is how memories all too easily surface.
This book, this beautiful book, does a hurtful thing. I mentioned how memories surface, which A Monster Calls certainly trudges up and out of their cobwebbed caskets, but it does much more than that. It reminds the reader of his or her own tragic encounters with loss, and then the story goes one step further and makes the reader feel. It is a rare event to find a book that reduces me to tears, and even more unlikely to find me reading that same book over and over again. So why should you want to read a book that holds the ability to make you re-live some of your most painful moments? Why do I read a book—repeatedly—that scalpels my insides? Because although A Monster Calls is about the pain of losing and letting go, it never fails to comfort me.
Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.
It provides the security a parent gives by wrapping a hurt child into a warm hug. I am that child, red-eyed and sobbing, and the book is here to tell me it’s all right. Everything will be all right, and I am okay. Conor’s truth, then, which the monster is so eager to pull out from him, is the strongest aspect that attracts me. A Monster Calls readers may interpret the truth a little differently from each other, given our own unique backgrounds. For me, the truth is feeling that the situation which has been dealt is a nightmare. The truth is a contradiction of wanting the ordeal to be over yet finding myself reluctant to let go.
Like Conor, I have felt desperate for an alternate reality where everything is okay and “normal,” or as normal as normal can be. When someone is ill, or injured, and that person is dying, the truth is that this is the reality. An alternate is not an option, sadly. But it is okay to wish for one, it’s okay that I want it to end, and it’s okay that I feel scared and don’t want to release my grip. My thoughts and feelings are important, yes, but what holds more weight is what I do. In realizing this, and all because of this one book, I can find closure and the power to heal.
“Son,” his father said, leaning forward. “Stories don’t always have happy endings.”
The honesty in this book, I must mention, cannot be appreciated enough. All too often I find a pool of falsity driving the plot, humor overtaking grief, or a contrived happy end that deprives me of a truly authentic reading experience. What Conor O’Malley goes through feels genuine, and it feels believable. Journeys like Conor’s are difficult paths to go down, and no one walks it willingly.
Patrick Ness has developed a story, inspired by Siobhan Dowd’s original idea, and paired it with Jim Kay’s stunning artwork to produce a book that touches the heart. Not only that, but A Monster Calls is a book for all ages, young and old and smack-dab in-between. Although cancer has a claim on Conor’s mother, this is not strictly “a cancer book.” By the nature of this novel, the story opens itself wide for anyone who is—and isn’t—familiar with losing a loved one. This is the kind of book that, even if a reader hasn’t been touched by death in some way, allows sadness to seep from its pages. Oh, sorrow will be felt, but I believe the book will become something of a sentimental treasure for those of us who’ve gone through the process. In this way, the lessons Dowd and Ness tell are likely valued on a deeper level of understanding.
And his mother was screaming.
And she was slipping.
It was so hard to hold on to her.
›› A Monster Calls: inspired by Siobhan Dowd’s idea, written by Patrick Ness, & illustrated by Jim Kay
- This is an international giveaway!
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›› Because not all of my subscribers have a Tumblr account, and I want to make this giveaway available to everyone, you can still enter simply by commenting on this review. To make it fair between my Tumblr and Midnight Coffee Monster readers, I am only allowing one entry per person. This means that you can either comment here OR reblog as many times as you like, but you will be entered only once.
The giveaway closed as of May 26th, 2013 at 11:59 PM PST. I extend a big thank you to all who participated and a congratulations toward the winner!