Thursday, 16 August 2012

A Monstrous Undertaking

“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 nightmare 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, though, is something different.  Something ancient, something wild.  And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.”

A Monster Calls comes complete with a number of accolades, being both the winner of the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children’s literature and its companion prize for illustration, the Kate Greenaway Medal – these within the same year, no less.  It is a deserving winner on both counts and marks a second Carnegie Medal win for Patrick Ness; also second year running in terms of recognition via the award. 

On this occasion, however, Ness cannot take the entire credit for the novel, nor does he make any attempt to do so.  As has been readily acknowledged, the premise for the novel (written by Ness) stems from the final story idea of Siobhan Dowd, a previous Carnegie Medal winner herself, who died of breast cancer in 2008.  She provided the name Conor for the novel’s main protagonist and the concept of the storytelling yew tree giant who materialises in Conor’s bedroom from which the narrative develops.  These had been set out within e-mails to her commissioning editor.  The concept of the novel’s opening had also been produced in draft.  When Dowd died sooner than had been anticipated, Ness was asked by Dowd’s editor to produce a novel inspired by the original idea.  This he describes as having been “handed a baton” which he invites the reader to “run with”.  He dedicates the finished novel to Dowd, noting this would have been her fifth book, had she been afforded the time to complete it.

A Monster Calls is, at the outset, the story of Conor, a thirteen year old boy, whose mother is seriously ill and who is visited by a figure in the shape of a yew tree, who tells him stories.  It is, however, much more than this.  Similarly to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Conor is informed he will receive three visitations, following which the yew tree will extract one “truth” from him himself.  Again, similarly to Scrooge, Conor will be changed by the experience, for “stories are the wildest things of all”, according to the monster.  “Stories chase and bite and hunt”.

A Monster Calls is indeed a dark and haunting novel, dealing with a troubled teenager brought face to face with his mother’s battle with cancer (although the illness itself is never named at any stage during the narrative).  He is the subject of school yard bullying and the offspring of divorced parents; issues which are also seen to have an effect upon him within the body of the novel. 

Conor is shown to be both isolated and frightened as a result of his mother’s ill health – he struggles socially, becoming noticeably withdrawn, save for his dealings with the yew tree monster; a figure he tells himself he is simply imagining, although his floor is covered with red yew tree berries and spiky leaves when he wakes post visitation.

The nightmarish quality of Conor’s dealings with the yew tree monster are highlighted by Jim Kay's black and white illustrations throughout.  Here, the lack of colour adds, as opposed to detracts from their power, making them shadowy and affecting – in some cases they span a double page within the hard copy format of the novel or completely surround the words upon the page, adding to the broody and ominous overtones within the artwork.  (Do yourself a favour – opt for the physical version of this one, as opposed to the e-book format on this score; similarly, make your way across to Kay's website to sample other examples of his work).

Ness utilises clear and simple language throughout, the result of which is that the emotional intensity of the narrative is communicated to the reader without ceremony.  Nor is it needed – the direct nature in which the story is addressed and its simplicity emphasise its subject matter.  Concise prose aside, however, Ness refuses to let his readers off lightly.  There is plenty of food for thought for both younger and older readers alike.  The parables with which Conor is regaled by the yew tree monster are shown to be deceptive in their conclusions and ambiguous in terms of interpretation.  As such, they lead Conor to question himself and to enter into questionable behaviour.  This makes him both human and a similarly shadowy individual to that which visits him at 12.07 on each occasion - and all the more compelling for it.  Black and white become murky and populate the grey “somewhere in between” which is also illustrated within the yew tree’s stories.
This brings matters back to the concept of storytelling and the power it can create.  Stories can prompt change; the truth, palatable or otherwise, is capable of making a difference.  Thus, Conor must face his own truths and tell the hardest story of them all – the fourth story of the novel; his own.  His struggle to do so towards the conclusion of the narrative is described in the blurb on the back cover as both “harrowing” and “transcendent”.  Unsurprisingly, this means A Monster Calls does not make for what might constitute a comfortable read on occasion.  Nevertheless, it is one which should not be missed.  It is one which will linger beyond the concluding prose and illustrations.    

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