A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (2011) 206 p.

Siobhan Dowd came up with the idea for this novel before dying of breast cancer, and passed it on to the children’s author Patrick Ness. In the introduction, Ness explains that he didn’t want the book to become a hamfisted attempt to imitate Dowd, and so used it as a seed for other ideas, writing his own book with the basic outline of what Dowd had given him. We’ll never know what Dowd would have written, but judging from the actual product, Ness made a good decision.

A Monster Calls follows Connor O’Malley, a boy growing up somewhere in the British Isles, who is watching his mother slowly die of cancer. Bullied at school, treated with unbearable sympathy by his teachers and peers, and estranged from his father who lives in America with a new wife and child, he has withdrawn into a private, alienated world of grief and anger. One night, at seven minutes past midnight, a monster visits Connor. It demands to know “the truth” from him, and begins to visit him regularly, telling him a series of stories. These stories are not the simple fairytales one would expect from stories with their structure. They are not fables about good and evil, but morally complex tales involving characters faced with difficult decisions. Connor dreads the passing of the stories, because the monster has told him that at the end of the telling, he expects to hear a story from Connor – by which he means “the truth.”

This is clearly, from the outset, an allegorical tale – but it’s not the allegory I expected, and it’s a deeper book than I thought it would be. It’s enhanced with dark, black-and-white, scratchy illustrations by Jim Kay, which are absolutely vital to the success of the book. They melt in and out of the text itself, lending a disturbing atmosphere that would be absent otherwise. The monster itself – a huge, bristling, spiked creature that spawns from a yew tree and is only ever seen in darkness – is foreboding and ominous, the drawcard of the book, just as Frank the rabbit is the drawcard of “Donnie Darko” or the Pale Man is the drawcard of “Pan’s Lanbyrinth.” They’re creepy, creative and fantastic, but not load-bearing. They’re surrounded by well-crafted stories that do them justice.

A Monster Calls is a perfect example of a book in that elusive category: children’s/YA books that can be enjoyed equally by adults. With the sparse text and frequent illustrations, it can be read in a couple of sittings – although ideally you’d read it on a dark and stormy night in a rural house in Ireland, not on a 38 degree day on the Sydenham line, like I did. It’s also, thanks to Jim Kay’s illustrations, one of those books that’s a pleasure to regard simply as an object. A Monster Calls is a dark, sad and profound story about coping with grief which I can recommend to anyone.

A Monster Calls at The Book Depository