'A Monster Calls' is a children’s low fantasy novel by Patrick Ness works on several levels. It is a story of a boy who struggles to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. It is an allegory for growing up as well as the complex nature of human beings and their relationships. It is a series of stories within stories that turn the novel into a metatextual narrative.
The plot focuses on the thirteen-year old Conor O’Mailey who is repeatedly haunted by the same nightmare and is visited by a monstrous talking yew tree at the precise time of 12:07 who tells him stories with unexpected twists and where the morals are never clear. Meanwhile, he faces trouble at school, resents his grandmother and has a distant relationship with his divorced father who lives with his own family at the other side of the world. Meanwhile, his mother who is undergoing chemotherapy seems to have no hope of recovery. The stories that the yew tree (who claims to a version of the Green Man myth) narrates to the boy are subtly connected to Conor’s own life and are rewarding to read as stand-alone tales as well.
Although very short and terse, the book makes for a very poignant and heart-breaking read that explores the perils of growing up amidst illness and alienation, extremely well. The characterization is on-point with believable and multidimensional characters, and the plot moves steadily to its inevitable conclusion. In some ways, the cancer motif reminded me of Sally Nichols’ Ways To Live Forever which features a protagonist who ultimately succumbs to the disease by the end of the story, and Ness does portray the illness with extreme sensitivity. And while the stories-within-stories are ambiguous, the ultimate moral of the novel is clear and very important. The fantasy elements are deliberately down-played and the book does a decent job of balancing horror and hope.
A Monster Calls which has now also been made to a film, makes for a mesmerizing and unconventional coming-of-age story. This is a brave and profound tale that will appeal to both children and adults.