A Monster Calls – Book Review

Title – A Monster Calls

Author – Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd

Genre – Fiction, fantasy, philosophy

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My book club’s theme for this month is “motherhood”, in keeping with the month that celebrates Mother’s Day. I settled on two books – one from the perspective of a child, and the second from the point of view of a mother.  “A Monster Calls” was my pick for the former – originally a story by Siobhan Dowd, who sadly passed away from cancer before she could complete it. Patrick Ness took on the onus of completing the book and making this brilliant story available to readers.

A Monster Calls” introduces us to thirteen-year old Conor O’Malley who has recurrent nightmares about his mother falling through a chasm and being eaten by a monster. The nightmares began soon after mum was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Conor’s parents divorced six years ago – his dad has since remarried, moved to another country with his new wife and baby, and barely calls or visits Conor, except on Christmases or birthdays. Conor doesn’t get along with his grandma who he finds bossy and very “un-grandmotherly” – she hardly cooks and orders takeaways most of the time, wears trouser suits and makeup, and doesn’t allow anyone to sit anywhere or touch anything in her house. Grandma feels Conor’s parents have not been honest enough with the boy about his mum’s condition and that they need to have a talk with him about what happens “after”. Conor had a fallout with his one-time best friend who told everyone about his mother’s condition who now view him out of pity, his teachers barely say anything to him on account of his “family situation”, and he is being bullied at school for having a “balding mother”. He has no friends or family to turn to to deal with his grief. He doesn’t even know what he is feeling. With mum’s frequent hospital stays, dad’s absence, and grandma moving back and forth between hospital visits, work, Conor’s school pickups and drops, the child spends most of his time alone.

Until the monster shows up. Not once, but repeatedly, and only at 12:07. Not the monster of his dream, but a “milder” looking one – the yew tree outside his house comes to life in an attempt to terrorize him. The monster tree says Conor was the one who called him to help, he will tell him three stories, and Conor has to narrate a fourth story in turn. Stories are important, the monster says. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth. Has the monster come to get rid of grandma? Punish dad? Help mum? Slay the bullies? Conor never called for help. Even if he did, it might have been a dream. How did the monster show up here? Who is the monster? “I am the spine that the mountains hang upon. I am the tears that the rivers cry. I am the lungs that breathe the wind. I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly. I am the stag, the mouse and the fly that are eaten. I am everything untamed and untameable. I come for matters of life and death.”

On the surface, this is a fantasy tale with a moral – a monster and a boy working together to make sense of life (and death). Each of the monster’s stories are lessons for Conor that life may not be what it seems, and one needs to view situations from all angles possible. There is no black or white, good or bad, but what we make of it. The monster trying to break things down for the boy to understand and make sense of his family situation in the form of stories, has a certain child-like charm to it.

But as you delve deeper, the story has a philosophical depth to it. And this is what makes it appealing to children and adults alike. Who/what is the monster? We have two monsters here – the monster in the book and the monsters in our lives. There is an underlying significance to why the monster tree only comes at 12:07 in the story. At the same time, the yew tree is a metaphor for anything and everything – parents who abandon children, bullies who harass, illnesses that take away loved ones. If someone is a monster to us, we are monsters to someone else in turn. We can be our own monsters by holding on to guilt, hatred, anger, sorrow, fear. The monsters outside are easier to fight than the monsters within. There is a goosebump-inducing scene where the yew tree asks Conor why he isn’t afraid of him, and the child replies he has scarier things to deal with than a monster tree.

Some beautiful lines  and lessons quoted by the monster:

~Belief is half of all healing. Belief in the cure, belief in the future that awaits.

~Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.

~You do not write your life with words. You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.

~Of course you are afraid. And yet you will still do it.

The book never mentions Conor’s mum’s illness. The beauty of the writing lies in the descriptions – of her health, her physical and mental state, the reactions of teachers and students in school, the child’s interpretation of everything happening around him. Everything tells us mum is dying but death is never mentioned in the book. “I want to know what’s going to happen with my mum,” Conor says. “Do you not already know?” asks the monster. And this is the same feeling the reader receives. When we know the answer, is the question important?

The characters are beautifully sketched – invoking sadness, anger, hope, fear and a myriad of feelings as you read along. The dying young mother who knows her son and mum don’t get along, but also knows they have only each other after she has gone. The grandma who seemingly has everything in control but can do nothing to save her child. The father who has given up on his old family now that he has a new one. The school bullies who prefer to ignore rather than beat up, because invisibility causes greater pain.

There was once an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen. It was not that he was actually invisible, but people had become used to not seeing him. And if no one sees you, are you really there at all? The monster’s stories leave much to ponder upon. And till the end leave the reader wondering who/what the monster is, where did he come from, why did he come, and for whom? I did not come to heal her. I came to heal you. But what is real healing and who decides who needs it? Conor held onto his mother tightly. And by doing so, he could finally let her go.

The title of the book would have one believe it’s all about monsters. (Some friends I recommended it to even asked if the genre is horror.) Though the monster is a metaphor for dealing with life and forms an integral part of the book, at it’s core this is a book about a mother. The exchanges between Conor and his mum, and mum and grandma form the highlights of the book. No matter how they interact with the other characters, when it comes to the mother-child exchange it all boils down to their love for each other, but for life to go on after death, the living will have to work through their differences. And the conversations with the two sets of mother-child are heartwarming. One particular dialogue that stood out and had me in tears, and which I felt strung the threads of the story, was between Conor and his grandma. “‘You know, Conor? You and me? Not the most natural fit, are we? But we have something in common. Your mum.’ His mum was her daughter. And she was the most important person either of them knew. That was a lot to have in common.”

In the author’s notes, Patrick Ness states his only guideline in taking up this story was to write a book that Siobhan would have liked. And he does a fabulous job here. However much I write, I feel I can’t do justice in reviewing this gem of a book. I finished reading it in a day. There are tears streaming down my face as I write this and think back to what I just read. The book might not have a happy ending, but life does not always have happy endings. And like the monster says, who decides what happiness is. Death might bring happiness to the ones dying by ending their suffering, though it brings sadness to the loved ones left behind. A real tearjerker but an important book nevertheless. Read this and recommend it, to both kids and adults. There is also an illustrated version available by Jim Kay.

Rating – 5/5

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