It is almost six years since Siobhan Dowd died from breast cancer, leaving her final idea for a young adult novel unwritten. As Patrick Ness points out in the foreword, “she had the characters, a premise and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.” It was her publisher who reached out to Ness and asked him to turn her premise into a novel. And here we are.
Since its publication in 2011, Ness’ realisation of Dowd’s idea has been, I think it’s fair to say, a sensation. Greeted with an avalanche of praise and the recipient of many awards (it’s the first book ever to win the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal). Having just devoured it in one sitting, I can absolutely see why.
Conor O’Malley is a thirteen year old boy. His parents are divorced, he lives with his mum, he is bullied at school, he doesn’t like his grandmother very much. So far, so normal. But Conor’s mother is slowly dying of an incurable disease (the word “cancer” haunts the pages but is never actually spoken) and one night, just after midnight, a monster calls on Conor. But it’s no everyday fairy tale monster.
Taking the form of the yew tree in Conor’s garden, the monster tells Conor he will tell him three stories and then Conor will tell him the fourth. Said fourth story will be the scariest thing of all for anyone, let alone a thirteen year old: the truth. Because, of course, Conor is refusing to accept the biggest truth of all. It’s giving him nightmares, ones he can’t or won’t fully remember after he wakes.
The writing is absolutely beautiful. The mixture of fantasy with the cold sad reality of Conor’s life is perfectly balanced, drawing in the reader and making you absolutely believe the monster really exists, because for Conor, he does. It is a very VERY rare occasion that a book moves me to tears. It happened with The Lovely Bones (and even now, I well up when I explain to people about the Monopoly scene) , but that is the only one. Until today.
The last thirty pages of the book deal with the monster drawing Conor’s story, his truth, from him. It’s the reason why he called and since he’s there to help, he draws it out of him in the most tender way he can. I’m not ashamed to say I sobbed my way through those thirty pages. A Monster Calls will stay with me for a very long time. Everyone who has lost someone should read this book. Heck, EVERYONE should read this book.