The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness. 2011.
I am trying to read my way through this list, for reasons that combine professional interest (I’m now Children’s Subscriptions Coordinator at work, you may acclaim me) with the simple curiosity of the lifelong, but now grown-up, bookworm. The undisputed number one book on the list is A Monster Calls, and it makes sense, doesn’t it, to start with the best?
A monster—a Green Man-type walking yew tree, the earth on two legs—calls on pre-teen Conor O’Malley at 12:07 one night. He isn’t afraid of it. Or rather, he is, but he’s not as afraid of it as he is of the other thing, which is the dream that he keeps having. The dream involves his mum, but he can’t even bring himself to think about it when he’s awake. His mum is dying. Everyone at school knows this, because his best friend has told them all. His father is in America with his new family and seems content to use them as an excuse to stay there; his grandmother, not at all a stereotypical sort, is a hard-nosed estate agent whose attempts to do right by her family are constantly butting up against her own brusqueness and rigidity. Conor is alone, until the monster comes. And the monster wants to tell him a story. Three, actually.
Conor—thank God—reacts like a normal child to this, which is to say that he can’t understand what’s meant to be so scary about that. (It reminded me of a delightfully sarcastic tweet, which I can’t find now, in response to the recently released The Secret Commonwealth: “Mum! Philip Pullman’s at the door! He’s bangin’ on about the power of storytelling again!”) The scarier thing, as far as Conor’s concerned, is the bargain that the monster drives: after three stories, it’ll be Conor’s turn to tell one. If he manages, the monster will leave; if he refuses, or if he can’t, the monster will eat him. There’s only one story he can tell–the story of what happens in his dream every night–and he doesn’t want to tell it. But he has a respite, for now, while the monster goes first.
The stories Conor is told are like fairytales, in that their characters and dynamics are similar: there is a foolish king whose second marriage is to an evil witch, a cruelly slaughtered bride, a misanthropic healer, a proud man humbled by grief. Where the monster, and Ness, differ from familiar tales is that the person we suppose to be good, the protagonist with whom our sympathies are designed to lie, is shown each time to be compromised. What they want to achieve is not necessarily good or right. Nor is this a simplistic flipping of heroes and villains: the “bad” characters don’t turn out to be angels. In the monster’s first story, the murderer of the bride turns out not to be the witchy queen, but the queen is most definitely a witch, and a powerful, dangerous one at that. She’s allowed to escape the violent retribution of the villagers not because she’s a good person, but simply because she isn’t a killer.
I have to confess that I, like Conor, was initially very skeptical of the monster’s stories, but by the end of the first one, the effect was clear: to introduce the idea of grey-area morality. And Conor needs this, because his mother is about to die, and although no one in his life has told him, it will be the moment he enters adulthood, and to enter adulthood is to enter a realm where nothing is any longer definitely good or definitely bad. The story the monster wants him to tell is the acknowledgment of his own loss of innocence: he must confess that a part of him actually wants his mother to die, to put a stop to her pain and his own.
The story is moving, and movingly told, on its own, but it’s Jim Kay’s illustrations that lend a real air of wildness, of uncharted territory both physical and emotional, to the book. He might be better known for his illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books, but his stark, brambly pen-and-ink drawings that encroach on nearly every page of A Monster Calls are exquisitely well suited to the text. This is my favourite spread:
A thoroughly unpatronizing dissection of grief and growing up, and an excellent start to the project. The best children’s book of the last twenty years? Quite possibly.