“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.” Connor was not scared. The 13 year old boy had worse monsters to face than the ominous yew tree thrusting at his window: the malignity of school bullies, the suffocating sympathy of the teachers, a neglecting father, his mother terminally ill.
Cancer corrodes these characters as the life of their originator. Siobhan Dows, human right activist and children’s book writer, lost her fight against breast cancer at age 47. “She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have was time” acknowledges in the introduction Patrick Ness, the author, who was handed over the job to shape that idea into a novel. The Virginia-born writer accomplishes the task with simplicity and profundity.
Don’t be fooled by the back cover’s “age 12 and up.” Like most books in the young adult aisle, this is a book for adults in disguise. The novel’s agile and witty prose will make you want to read it cover to cover in one afternoon (and probably cry copiously before you hit the end mark). Resist that temptation: pace yourself. Let the chapters sink in and get to your bones. Appreciate the marvelous illustrations by Jim Kay. His brisk and emotive brushes are an integral part of the book’s artistic content and perfectly frame this powerful story.
Ness has the ability to build a complex story into a simple, almost stereotypical, frame (how many books’ monsters have visited young boys) and innovate on the theme. The book has multiple themes and multiple layers that weave, messy and contradictory, like life itself. In its essence, though, it is a story about stories and their ability to fight your demons, to uncover the one thing we all usually shroud under the noise of our daily lives: the truth.
The monster offers three parables that intertwine with Connor’s life as the various themes surface: the deluded hope of his mother recovery; the daily lies used to shield from suffering; isolation and annihilating power of pain. Nobody could see him anymore under the thick blanket of his misfortune and “if no one sees you […] are you really there at all?”
Finally, guilt sneaks into Connor as he falls into the secret wish to stop fighting that wearing battle next to his mom. A type of guilt we are all pray of at times, that comes from the inability to detach thought and action, as if thoughts could influence reality as actions do. They do not. In the good and in the bad, “What you think is not important. It is only important what you do,” says the healing tree.
The monster’s intervention is not free though and what he wants in return is a story. It forces Connor to face his own nightmare that if left looming in the dark would have drowned the boy. And by doing that, it saves him.
Behind suffering and grievance, this is a book, fiercely honest and beautiful, about hope and the healing power of stories.