Review: A Monster Calls

 A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd. Candlewick Press. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot:The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.” One night, a monster visits thirteen year old Conor O’Malley. He will make three more visits to Conor, then demand something in return. The next morning, Conor is not sure whether the visit of the monster yew tree was real or a dream. Real life is nightmare enough. His mother is ill. His father is in America with his new family and rarely visits. His grandmother is formal and distant. At school, he’s the boy whose mother is ill. At best, he’s whispered about. At worst, he’s the target of bullies.

And now the monster visits nightly at 12:07. Demanding what Conor cannot give.

The Good: This is a heartbreaking look at how one teenager copies with the terminal illness of his mother.

The monster yew tree who visits Conor nightly tells him stories. Stories without happy endings, stories with uncomfortable truths. “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad guy. Most people are somewhere in between.” Stories pushing Conor to admit to the truth he hides even from himself. It’s not the truth you’d think.

Conor’s alienation, his anger, his hurt, crushed me. I’d be just another adult in his life saying, “poor Conor.”

A Monster Calls doesn’t hide the anger and ugliness of a parent dying. From past entries, readers know I’m not a fan of stories where tragic backstory creates friendships, but that’s because it’s the story in A Monster Calls that rings more true to me than those “feel sorry for me and like me” tales. Conor’s sick mother results in varying reactions from Conor’s peers, friends, and family: ostracism, bullying, and being ignored among them. It does not result in friendship and love.

The adult reader cannot read this without thinking of Siobhan Dowd. Dowd, whose original story idea this was. Dowd, who died from cancer. While Ness had her “characters, a premise, and a beginning,” one wonders just how much of this story (about a woman dying from cancer and how her family reacts) was inspired by Dowd. How much was Dowd trying to give meaning and narrative structure to her own struggle? And while some may say it’s the story that matters, not Dowd’s illness and Ness taking on a story idea first dreamt up by someone he never met, the information is on the ARC and in an author’s note. As people discuss this book and bibliotherapy and audience are brought up (see, for example, the Heavy Medal discussions), I wonder — if a person was reading A Monster Calls with no knowledge of its origins, would it change how they read it?

I don’t think most children or teen readers will care about Dowd. To them, it’s a story about family and friends, with all their flaws. It’s a story about one’s worst nightmare come true. It’s a story about a monster, a story that confirms what the reader may have begun to suspect on their own: life isn’t fair, life is complex, sometimes you cannot trust the sun to rise in the east and gravity to work and the earth to be below your feet.