Monday, 28 July 2014

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

The monster comes calling at Conor’s bedroom window at 12.07am. A giant, a yew tree that has taken on human form, a Green Man, he tells Conor, “I’ve come to get you.”

But Conor isn’t afraid – he knows there are worse things that could happen – and so, while the picture that Patrick Ness builds of this monster could - in virtually any other circumstances - be terrifying, we are not afraid either.

Over the next few nights – weeks, even – in between school and trips to the hospital, between dealing with his uptight grandmother and absentee father, the monster visits Conor and promises to tell him three tales, but in exchange, after the monster’s tales are done, Conor must tell his own tale, his truth.

It seems, at the beginning, as if this truth will be something about his mum’s illness or about Conor’s nightmare. In fact, the chances are high that these two things, and the fact that this new monster has appeared on Conor’s doorstep, are intricately linked. But the tales that the monster tells Conor are not fairytales, they do not seem designed to appease or support, and their endings are the reverse of normal expectations, the morals simultaneously twisted around and yet still true.

And so, after the second tale, I began to question: Why is the monster really here? What is its purpose with Conor? Although the revenge the Green Man wreaks in his tales is monstrous and demonstrative, we don’t feel afraid of him, for his behaviour feels justified. But perhaps we should be afraid, for Conor’s sake? What twist to Conor’s story is the monster going to reveal? What truth does Conor have locked away in his heart, and what will the monster’s response be?

A Monster Calls is a really, truly extraordinary book. It is dark yet cleansing; sad yet revealing; quiet yet full. Based on an idea conceived by Siobhan Dowd, but who died before she could complete it, the baton was passed to Patrick Ness who took Dowd’s idea and ran with it.

Part of me wants to say that the most astounding thing about this book are Jim Kay’s illustrations, which flow across the pages and intermingle with the text, but that wouldn't be accurate. The illustrations on their own are incredible, and the story on it’s own is too, but the pairing of the two together create a work that literally comes to life page by page, almost as if watching an animation rather than reading a book. It makes for a quite extraordinary piece of storytelling, and explains quite wordlessly why it has received the accolades it has, particularly the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal.

This feel of animation is particularly strong when it comes to the four tales: they flow within the text of the rest of the story and yet are somehow something ‘other’, standing outside the rest of the words. More often than not the monster uses his earth magic to place the scene of his tale before Conor’s (and the reader’s) eyes, in a manner that reminds me of the animation used in the penultimate Harry Potter film to tell the tale of the Deathly Hallows. This feeling is no doubt influenced by the full page spreads of black and white images, pictures that in their almost two-tone sketchiness could be dark and creepy – and indeed are, in some ways – yet whose detail and light touches make them endlessly fascinating. I heard David Almond comment that, “People say books without pictures are somehow more grown-up, and I think that’s just mad.” (Desert Island Discs, Radio 4, March 10, 2013) Mad indeed, as Ness and Kay demonstrate here.

Meanwhile, Conor’s mum is getting sicker and sicker and, while the people surrounding Conor flail and struggle, they keep Conor in the dark. It may be obvious to everyone what the likely outcome will be – Conor included – but given the adults’ refusal to say the words to him, the way they shut him out of the proceedings, it’s little wonder that Conor is unable to, or refuses to, acknowledge the direction in which things appear to be headed.

I felt relentlessly angry at how Conor was treated by the adults around him, and as Ness showed me flashes of Conor’s own anger through the story - destroying his grandmother’s sitting room, seeking out the bullies that torment him in the school playground - it tapped into my own childhood memories of that intense, boiling anger that resides deep within the heart and the belly, but is so difficult to explain or to overcome. Conor is angry and hurting, and it’s painful to watch.

The monster’s tales get progressively closer to home, and closer to Conor’s heart, and the ultimate reveal, the purpose to the monster’s call, is simultaneously cataclysmic and cleansing. The monster’s explanation for his tales and his deep understanding of Conor’s pain are incredibly revealing for any human being trying to understand their mixed emotions:

‘Humans are complicated beasts,’ the monster said. ‘How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour? How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking? How can a person be wrong-thinking but good-hearted? How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?’

This is not a book to be rushed; it’s a reading experience not so much to savor, but that should appreciate the intricacies of the storytelling, of the animation and the illustration that goes along with the words. It’s a true piece of art. And as Patrick Ness says in his introduction, “Stories don’t end with the writers, however many started the race. Here’s what Siobhan and I came up with. So go. Run with it.”

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