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4 out of 5 stars
Books like Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls are the reason why I named my blog “Oh, this book”. There’s nothing more to do when you’ve finished reading except to sit for a while and think “Oh, this book”. Sometimes I want to shout it out in an exclamation of happiness, other times I quietly voice it in sorrowful lament. In the case of A Monster Calls, it was the latter for me. Although the book is technically a children’s book and is written in simple language, it has the capability to emotionally move anyone, no matter the age.
The story is about Conor O’Malley, the son of a single mother suffering from cancer. Amidst the hospital visits and family issues, Conor receives a visitor, a monster who comes knocking at his window in the form of a yew tree. The Monster shows up after midnight and promises to tell Conor three tales, but it will not tell its tales without receiving some sort of compensation. In exchange, Conor must tell a fourth tale to the monster, and the telling will not come without its challenges.
This book turned out to be far different than I thought it would be. The cover art of the edition I have as well as the illustrated edition seems to indicate that the book would be a sort of “ghost story” about scary monsters. The yew tree monster is not really that scary of a monster, though, and I think it serves as a good symbol for one of the major themes of the book. The monster comes to teach Conor that the division between right and wrong and good and evil is not always so starkly drawn. The monster itself is at times scary and destructive and at other times gentle and compassionate. The book conveys a very strong message about the complexity of human emotion, especially as it relates to loss and dealing with change.
In my opinion, one of the strongest points of this book is the portrayal of the characters and the family relationships. The relationship between Conor and his mother is a very special one. Ness writes a highly believable mother-son relationship which allows the reader to really empathize with both Conor and his mother as they deal with her illness and their changing family life.
The monster is also an excellent character with a great voice. I love the tales it tells – you really get the feeling that the monster is something old, something legendary. It tries to be scary or intimidating at times, but Conor, despite the fact that he is often intimidated by the bullies at school, manages snarky retorts and puts the monster in its place. I enjoyed the banter between Conor and the monster because it really showed that Conor is a multi-faceted character.
The book is terribly sad, there is no doubt about that. It is also a touching story about moving forward in the face of hardship. I would recommend this book for adult readers as well as for younger readers. If you’re wondering if this book is appropriate for a young reader in your life, you should know that it deals with heavy themes about life and death (and, of course, monsters!). I think this could be a good book for an adult to read together with a child to gauge if the topics are too heavy or if the monsters and nightmares are too scary.
A tip for anyone who is planning to read this one soon: I highly recommend paying attention to the author’s note at the beginning and the extra page at the end on The Siobhan Dowd Trust. These additions give more context to the story as a whole, and I think really give the book a moving sense of purpose.