A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is actually a completed story inspired by the notes of British author Siobhan Dowd, who passed away in 2007. The forward tells the story of how these notes came to Ness’s attention, and why he decided to complete the story for Dowd. We are extremely grateful that Ness decided to do so, as the story is incredibly profound and hauntingly honest. Thirteen-year-old Conor has been having nightmares – horrifying nightmares that wake him up nearly every night. One night, at seven minutes past midnight, Conor gets a visit from a monster – but it is not the monster from his nightmare, and it is not just a dream this time. When Conor asks the monster why he has come, he learns that the monster wants Conor to tell him a story – not just any random tale, but Conor’s own true life story. After the monster returns multiple times, at seven past midnight, and telling Conor harrowing stories where bad seems good and good seems bad, it is time for Conor to meet the monster’s demand. A Monster Calls is about growing up and facing the dark, scary, and confusing elements of life. It is about admitting to ourselves the parts of us we try to keep hidden, so that we can be freed. It is a lesson all young people need to learn, and a lesson all grown-ups need to be reminded of, from time-to-time.
Because the story is geared toward younger readers (though adult readers might appreciate it even more), there are not a plethora of characters and none of those present are exceedingly complicated. That being said, each of the characters, from the main character, Conor and his monster, to Conor’s ailing mother, his absent father, his strict grandmother, and even his school mates and teachers, each have unique personalities and react to situations in independent ways. Certain of the characters are a bit flat (the absent father, for instance, is about what you would expect him to be) while others, like Conor and his grandmother, can be surprising and do show multiple aspects of themselves. Conor’s journey to self-discovery (admitting what he is terrified to admit and learning to understand why he feels and acts the way he does) is fascinating not just because the story is deeply honest and painful, but because its impact on Conor manifests itself in wholly believable and understandable, but haunting ways. The monster, too, is a character one could despise or love, which is brilliant.
The only less-than-perfect aspect of this book is the prose, and that is largely due to my own struggle with understanding the intended audience for the book. While the writing is great – good pacing, appropriate amounts of dialogue v. narrative v. description, intelligent style and form – there is still just a little something missing. I think the disconnect, for me, comes from the fact that the story itself is dark, but is displayed/presented in a picture-book type way. I would compare the theme and certain elements of the book, including many scenes where Conor’s anger is unleashed, to works by Robert Cormier – they are appropriate to the story and the audience because they are realistic and have something to teach us, but the glossy pages coupled with the limited language (accessible to younger readers, though certainly not “simple”) left me feeling just a tiny bit confused about who the intended audience was. Overall, though, it was not distracting “in the moment” and did not deter me from enjoying and appreciating the story.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
There is very much a “caught in-between” feeling to this book when it comes to theme and age appropriateness. Since this is really a coming-of-age tale, supported by drawings that enhance the story, the book at times feels as if it is meant for young readers; however, the subject matter and the intensity of the story are clearly more appropriate for adults. Ultimately, the book probably works best for young adults and adults, but could be a great “life lesson” book for younger children as well, if read with a parent. This middle-road effect is simultaneously appealing and unsettling. As an adult reader, I did not always feel wholly comfortable reading a “picture book,” but in the end, the story is so powerful, the images so beautiful (but dark) and the psychological/spiritual needling so personal, it is impossible not to fall head-over-heels in love with it (think: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery). Without the images, the book would not be what it is, and without the story, the images would be nice, but hollow. The combination of the two turns out to be perfection in print.
Final Verdict: 3.95 out of 4.0