Review: A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness & Siobhan Dowd

AMC

5 out of 5 stars.
(Slight spoilers)

Based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls is a 2011 novel written by Patrick Ness with illustrations provided by Jim Kay. It follows the story of Conor, a thirteen-year-old boy who is plagued by nightmares – but not just any nightmare, the nightmare. Bullied at school and living alone with his ill mother, Conor tries to make the world believe he’s okay. Until the monster comes.

This was an amazing story. And I mean that whole heartedly. I managed to read it in two sittings across one weekend because I was so engrossed by everything. It was beautiful and haunting, and coupled with the artwork by Jim Kay, it created a tale that really struck me.

First and foremost, I have to commend the writing. This was the first ever Patrick Ness book I’ve read and I fell in love with his writing style immediately. Everything flowed so beautifully and effortlessly, each scene crafted and told just right. The way that Patrick Ness told this story was simple in the most brilliant way – it read just like a fairy-tale and every last word felt as though it could be a modern version of the genre. It seemed to embody every element that has made stories like Snow White and The Little Mermaid classics, but in a way that was unique in and of itself. Nothing ever felt as though it was going on for too long or for too little. Each scene captivated me, had me thinking, and made me feel things no story has before. It was raw and real.

It really goes to show that a story doesn’t have to be one-thousand pages long to be told right. Because that too was what drew me towards it in the first place – the length. It’s a little over two-hundred pages long, yet it tells a story that feels as though it spanned ages. In a good way. I wasn’t expecting to find a story of that size inside such a small book and it astounded me.

The story is character driven and the development of each was so real I felt like I was voyeuristically looking into these people’s lives.

Conor, the main protagonist, was so damaged and lonely I immediately took a liking to him. In other stories I’ve been reading lately – especially those with male leads – when a main character is going through a tough time there comes a moment when they become whiney and annoying. Their voice is grating. But with Conor, I never found that because it was like seeing another human being suffering. Despite the creepiness of the monster arriving, Conor was just a kid in the end. I found myself wanting to help him so often because you could see he understood everything that was going on but had been told so many times by his mother that things would be okay that he couldn’t handle it when things started to get worse. There was something so innocent and endearing about his character.

Other characters woven throughout the story had equally as much development as him, even if they were in just a few scenes. His grandmother was at first seen as just as much of a monster as the creature coming to visit him, but was then shown with as much raw emotion as Conor. His dad was at first seen as a deadbeat who’d chosen a new family over his first, but was then shown as trying his hardest with a tricky situation. His best friend, Lily, was first shown as pushy and misunderstood his anger until she too finally realised what she had done to upset him and apologised. Even the bullies had development.

Throughout, Conor is bullied by a boy called Harry and his two friends, who reminded me of Crabbe and Goyle from Harry Potter. The two goons aside, I liked Harry’s development as a character despite it being horrifying for Conor. He starts as a physical bully, shoving Conor around and punching him until he bled. But he starts to analyse him in a way that is so rarely shown in even the most frightening villains I’ve read in literature. Harry’s psychological torment of Conor is so cruel yet absolutely necessary for Conor’s eventual growth.

Of course, the monster himself is an interesting character. The idea of what he is and where he comes from isn’t anything new, but the creepiness of its intentions were enough to make it feel scary. It was a metaphor, in the end, that made the monster terrifying. It was what the monster stood for. The truth. The monster may have physically been a tree but in reality, everything that drove it, the thing that made it terrifying, was Conor’s own head. Each story the monster told was a form of truth, and it spawned a quote that I fell in love with:

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?

In true fairy-tale fashion, this small story had some brilliant morals – and I feel they are lessons appropriate for our time and who will likely be reading this novel.

The truth, like the monster, can be a terrifying and harrowing thing. The stories it can make really are wild creatures – it can destroy, it came harm, it can change minds. But it can also be comforting in unexpected ways. When it’s accepted, people can grow.

I’ve never come across a book quite like this before, I can understand why it was chosen to be adapted into a movie. I have a feeling that this is going to become a book that is treasured for a long time because no matter what year it is, everyone will be able to relate to it in one way or another.

I highly recommend it.

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