Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls, won both the prestigious Carnegie Medal and its sister prize the Kate Greenway Medal for illustration, for the first time in the award’s history. It is the only children’s novel to have truly blown me away since reading Philip Pullman’s Dark Material’s Trilogy. Ness also won the Carnegie in 2001 for Monsters of Men. He described the win as ‘extremely humbling – and a little unnerving.’
A Monster Calls was based on an idea by the author Siobhan Dowd, whose death from cancer in 2007 prevented her from writing it herself. Ness likened the experience to ‘being handed a baton and told to run.’
The novel tells the story of 13-year-old Conor O’Malley coming to terms with his mothers battle against cancer. The monster who repeatedly visits him in his backyard is a fantastic creation – part giant, part yew tree, destructive, didactic and elemental. Though the monster terrorises him, it has also been summoned by Conor in some way. When the monster tells him ‘I am the wild earth come for you, Conor O’Malley,’ we learn that the real nightmare Conor has been battling is reflective of his own anxieties about his mother’s illness and inevitable death. With only a difficult grandmother living nearby and a father living in America, his mother’s death would leave him virtually alone in the world.
Despite being written in the voice of a child, this is very much a children’s book written with an adult audience in mind. Putting the supernatural elements to one side, it is a book that deals deftly with the most basic human emotions. Conor is at a crossroads in his life. His mother is his whole world, and he feels utterly helpless because he is a young boy, despite his yearning for some control in his life.
The monster both Conor’s terroriser and his protector teaches him to sort through the tangled mess of his emotions to find the truth of his experience. A thrilling read because you never quite know where the monster is coming from and what exactly its motivations are? Will it help Conor, or will it destroy him?
Be warned this is not a sweet child’s story that ties events neatly together at the end. It is a novel about life and death, and everything meaningful about our existence. At times it is heartbreaking, but much like life itself worth the time and effort. It is also deliciously darkly funny in places. Sometimes it takes a child to teach us the truths we have forgotten – or chosen to forget.
It is also an extraordinarily beautiful book. Kay’s stark and menacing illustrations and the way they interact with the text, together with the lavish production values, make it a joy to hold in your hands. If only all books were produced with such love, care and attention. Together Ness, Kay and Dowd have created a potent piece of art which is a true gift to those brave enough to read the novel.