During the day, Conor is struggling with his mother’s progressively more desperate fight with cancer. His parents are divorced and his father gone to America with a new wife and child, seen only on alternate Christmases and the occasional Skype call. His grandmother doesn’t fit his concept of the ideal grandmother; all his friends have softly wrinkled, gently cookie baking types, while his is (gasp, the horror) still working as a real estate agent, and her house too carefully arranged to allow for the vagaries of a teenaged boy. At night, the ancient craggy yew tree in the graveyard adjacent to his garden comes to life and…visits is too namby pamby a word–the yew monster intrudes into his life, though as Conor says upon the first visitation, this is hardly the worst nightmare he can have. For the past several months, Conor has, not surprisingly, been dreaming of losing his mother, though when awake he believes the treatments will cure her because the alternative is too awful for him to bear.
During the day, Conor struggles with his classmates and teachers regarding him with that ghastly gooey pity that those of us who’ve been in this or a similar situation have come to recognize and dread; he feels he’s defined as what’s going on with his mother, rather than being seen as himself, a separate individual in his own right. This seeming invisibility and separateness is deeply troubling to him; he is subsumed into his mother and that illness of his mother’s is all people see. Not even sending the school bully to the hospital (partly at the instigation of the yew monster) after being provoked once too often by the bully brings down the expected punishment from the school administration. The teachers only say “With all that you’re going through, what purpose could that [punishment] possibly serve?” Three nights in a row, the yew tree arrives at 12:071 precisely to tell Conor three stories, each with a twist in that the ‘evildoer’, in the eyes of the yew, are not the ones Conor believes them to be. The visits will culminate with Conor telling his story: the yew draws Conor into the nightmare the boy’s been having and forces him to confront…not his mother’s death but his own feelings about it, his own sense of guilt that he didn’t do enough combined with the struggle to reconcile the childish anger at her “leaving” him via her imminent death with the more adult understanding that none of this is her choice any more than it is his–she doesn’t want to leave him any more than he wants her to go.
I’m not sure whether to call this a teen/YA book or a juvenile, simply because of the very dark subject. The Yew Monster, and associated illustrations, are frightening enough, but I suspect that the subject of the book might whiz straight over young kids’ heads. Nonetheless, I’d suggest it to kids dealing with the death of a parent, or even their own, depending on their maturity. There are stages through which we all pass in the course of understanding illness and death, and whether to give this book to any given child depends on where the kid is in the course of this process. Definitely read the printed book if at all possible, as the illustrations augment the text to the point that I’d call it almost a graphic novel. The text alone doesn’t quite cut it, and so the audio version will seem insipid compared to the printed one, no matter how good the reader.
Just to settle one question that seemed to crop up in Goodreads: A Monster Calls isn’t a horror book by any stretch of the imagination, though it is frightening. It’s a story about how we deal with loss of loved ones, and yes, Ness gets that aspect of it exactly right.
Normally, I try to avoid mentioning my own reaction to the books I review for this blog; this time I’ll bend that rule somewhat. I’m not much of a weepy type…but I couldn’t make it more than ten pages at a time in A Monster Calls before bursting into tears the copiousness of which resembled a hosepipe sufficiently to perturb my husband. Thankfully, he’d heard of the book, so when he recognized the cover, he just said “Oh–death of a parent!”2 and set a box of Kleenex by my side and let me continue on my soggy way. Speaking from experience (though not that of someone Conor’s age) Ness gets the family’s reaction to the mother’s illness and impending death absolutely spot on. On the plus side, I’m glad Ness didn’t sugar-coat the issue of a parent’s death; many children’s books have touched on loss, but I don’t remember any that provoked such a strong (positive) reaction among its reviewers. On the possible minus, I’d be interested in seeing what people in the intended age range think; many of the reviews I saw were by adults, and it’s possible that younger kids might not get the point of the book.
Here are some external reviews:
Anne, on Pornokitch
A slightly less emotionally involved review, at the same web site
The New York Times
1watch this time; it does come into play at the end.
2my mother died of something other than cancer several years ago