Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both. [loc. 1727]Conor O'Malley, whose mother has cancer, whose father has emigrated to America with his new family and no place for Conor, whose best friend told everyone at school about Conor's mum being ill, which isolated him ... Conor is visited, at seven minutes past midnight, by a monster. It's not the nightmare-spawned monster he was expecting, though: it's something like a yew tree, something like an old god, and it wants to tell Conor three stories and have him tell one, truthful, story in return.
It's too early for grief, so Conor is fuelled by rage. He hates his grandmother; hates his dad's new family; hates his schoolmates, who -- in an acutely painful episode -- taunt him that they don't (won't) see him. The monster teaches him some important lessons about loss, and faith, and love: and in the end Conor does come up with the truth.
Patrick Ness wrote this, but it was Siobhan Dowd's idea -- perhaps inspired by her own cancer, which killed her in 2007. Apparently the illustrations are dark and grim: reading the Kindle deprived me of, or spared me from, those. (C'mon, Amazon: book illustrations aren't difficult.) The book itself is pretty harrowing: it took me back to the winter I was 10, when my mother was in hospital and nobody would tell me what was really going on. I'm not sure I would have benefitted from reading A Monster Calls at that age, though it's assigned reading in Year 7 in some schools. I think it would just have made me angrier.
I'm not sure I recognised how angry I'd been, that winter, until I read A Monster Calls.
Ness's style is plain and unsentimental, but never dull. The monster's voice is clear and poetic: Conor's is colloquial, credibly a teenage boy's. And, admirably, there is no happy ending, except for the calm that comes with acceptance.