Review of ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness

This is an extraordinary and unforgettable novel. Although it has won children’s book awards and been adapted for the screen, I never got around to reading it until I recently found a copy in a charity shop. This copy is the film tie-in edition, rather than the original version which was illustrated by Jim Kay.

The history behind the novel is that the author Siobhan Dowd had the story idea but died of cancer, aged forty-seven, before she was able to write the book. Her editor then asked Patrick Ness to write it. The result is a powerful and timeless exploration of grief and loss. The story follows Conor, whose mother is terminally ill. He believes she will get better and he can’t bear to discuss the reality with anyone. At school, his situation makes him invisible. He’s haunted by a monster in a nightmare. But then a different monster shows up, a walking yew tree who tells Conor stories…

Although this book is rooted in real life, there is a fantasy element because there’s evidence the tree monster is real. One of its names is the Green Man, which suggests pagan ideas of nature worship and the cycle of death and rebirth. This monster is wonderfully described and I loved the rapport with Conor. At first they’re in conflict but then a friendship develops. One of the other things I love about the book is the writing style, which is spare, clear and has a folk tale quality. Both the themes and the style ensure that it has rightly become a modern classic. It’s a raw, dark, terribly painful novel but I feel enriched for having read it.

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