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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness Inspired by Siobhan Dowd (2011)
A Monster Calls (2011)
by Patrick Ness
Hardcover Edition
Publication Date: September 15th, 2011
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Buy a copy via Amazon.
Synopsis from Goodreads.

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

My Thoughts:
One of the hardest reviews I’ve ever written, not because I turned into the waterworks like many others, but because the novel left me largely ambivalent: I didn’t want to hurl it out the window, but neither did I want to shove it under people’s noses. The most frustrating part of it is that I don’t know what’s “wrong” with it. A Monster Calls was an original, haunting, and emotional piece of art. I can definitely see why people love it, with the exception of The New York Times who called it “darkly funny”–there’s nothing remotely funny about your mother dying and a 20-feet tree monster threatening to eat you up, but each to their own I guess. I believe without a doubt that its double Carnegie Award win is well-deserved. However, it just didn’t strike a chord with me like it did for many others. I suspect it’s because I haven’t experienced grief to Conor’s magnitude or I’m secretly a heartless robot.

Story, Slightly Predictable but No Less Unique:
The only gripe I can come up with is the story’s predictability, we already know early on what the story is trying to say, but a delight to read nonetheless. It’s about 13-year old Conor waking up to a yew tree monster at 12:07. Surprisingly, Conor isn’t scared of the monster, and the monster tells him three tales in return for one of Conor’s tales in return. We later find out that the monster is tied into Conor’s reality as he struggles to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness.

I enjoyed the slight fairytale aspects of the story and how it parallels with Conor in reality. And sometimes those lines collide and the monster manifests itself in Conor’s life (sometimes I wonder if the monster is a product of Conor being mentally unstable.)

Conor and The Monster:
I find the story reveals most about Conor during the monster’s tales. We see Conor’s young, naive perspective in his reactions to morality, and what ought to happen. The monster’s stories are pretty transparent, even though he pretends to be a jerk half the time with his half-truths so he can go like “you thought I meant this didn’t you, but you didn’t listen closely did you? Muhahaha!”, but perhaps Conor is still too young to understand them without further guidance that the monster often says more than necessary. I rather have Conor come to conclusions on his own.

Conor is as complex (if not more) of a character as the monster in his own right. We see Conor full of hate: he wants to wallow in his grief, he blames his best friend when the school treats him differently. We also see him struggling to find his place in the world without his mother, when his father already has his own family thousands of miles away and when his grandmother seems austere in her fancy tailored pants.

Everyone is already making plans to move on, while Conor is stuck at a standstill. As the monster claims, humans are full of contradictions, and even young Conor is not immune. He dislikes sympathy, but he also takes advantage of it. He knows his mother’s condition, but he wills himself to believe otherwise. He constantly blames himself for letting his mother go, longing for someone to punish him for his imperfect thoughts. There’s a lot of weight on his shoulders.

Symbolism, I Can See It On Its Way To Literary Canon:
I desperately need to discuss this book with someone. I WANT TO ANALYZE THIS THING TO A PULP, just to soak out its hidden meanings, and to unravel its many layers. I feel it embodies so much more than what meets the eye. The entire story is just rich with symbolism.

Of course, the monster is just brimming with mystery and multiple interpretations (I’ve seen reviews that claim the monster is a manifestation of Truth or of Grief, while I see him as Judgment) but also Harry the bully (I felt Harry was helping him rather than bullying him, and at one point I felt Harry might’ve been a manifestation of the monster) is an enigma himself. And why 12:07? Why not midnight? Surely the chimes of midnight are much more frightening, no?

“What You Think Is Not Important. It is Only Important What You Do.”:
To comfort Conor when he discovers the “evil” in his human thoughts, the monster tells him, “What You Think Is Not Important. It is Only Important What You Do.” I found myself questioning if I could accept that, especially from the same monster who proclaimed belief to be so important, this quotation seemed to contradict his previous “lessons.” I believe that what you think is more important than what you do, because what do actions mean if there aren’t intentions behind them (as the monster’s stories reveal)?

I may be straying too far from its intended meaning. Perhaps it only means that our thoughts are always shades of gray, filled with unintended contradictions, and thus can’t be trusted as much as actions.

Being Inspired by Siobhan Dowd Must Do Wonders for Writing:
I’ve just finished Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go a week ago, and while I had no complaints about his writing, A Monster Calls takes it to another level. Ness’s lyrical prose shines more than it ever did in The Knife of Never Letting Go, more than I thought possible. The imagery is hauntingly beautiful and I found myself repeating sentences aloud just to hear the words dance off my tongue. The scene were the monster forms from the yew tree branches is just begging to be read out loud.

Overall, I found A Monster Calls to be thought-provoking and a poignant masterpiece with lyrical writing and delightfully complex characters. It’s a surprisingly unique addition to the YA genre. But I just didn’t feel emotionally connected to it, leaving me ambivalent in the end. However, I can say without a doubt its praise is not without merit. Don’t be fooled by the illustrations or the children’s book feel, this novel is not simple.

On the other hand, the cover is ever more awesome without the dust-jacket.

Rating: B+