Stories are the wildest thing of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.Thirteen-year-old Connor O’Malley is not having an easy time. At school, he faces bullying and loneliness. At home, he has to deal with a recurring nightmare which torments him nearly every night. And then there are his mother’s cancer treatments, which leave her feeling exhausted and unwell and in need of the help of her own mother. Connor doesn’t particularly get on with his grandmother, and he sees her presence in the house as an uncomfortable intrusion. One night, Connor wakes up with a voice calling his name. The monster outside, a Green Man-like creature, tells Connor that he has come to tell him three tales. When he’s done, he wants Connor to tell him a fourth. He wants Connor to tell him the truth, and he won’t settle for anything less.
First of all: A Monster Calls completely shattered me. My friend Vivienne had very helpfully warned me to keep tissues at hand when I read it, but somehow I didn’t expect to go through a whole box. This is an extraordinarily moving story, and not in the easy tearjerker sort of way that a story about grief in clumsier hands has the potential to become. What makes it so affecting is exactly how unsentimental it is, how restrained, and most of all how perceptive and emotionally genuine.
You can tell from the start that A Monster Calls is going to be a story about dealing with loss. This is true enough, but just as much it’s a story about the power of stories. The monster’s three tales are complex and ambiguous and help illuminate real life’s lack of black and whites, much like the overall story is doing. The novel is very impressive at a conceptual level, in the sense that it comments on what it hopes to achieve (on what it most certainly does achieve): here’s a story communicating things that are too raw and uncomfortable and painful for straightforward conversations, and inside it you have tales that very consciously do the exact same.
Human beings tell stories for myriads of reasons, but this is certainly one of the foremost. How else do we address what we can’t quite acknowledge? How else do we communicate what we fear will unravel us if worded directly? How but with the aid of stories do you work through these complex, troubling, momentous and messy emotions, especially if you’re thirteen years old?
Because they work at multiple levels, because they respect their audience’s intelligence, stories like A Monster Calls do this without ever becoming didactic or heavy-handed. Implicit to Connor’s story is the acknowledgement that these are deadly feelings, for adults and teenagers alike. These are feelings that can destroy you if you don’t work through them. But at the same time, the story absolutely refuses to pathologize Connor in any way. He’s a human being reacting to his circumstances in a perfectly understandable way, and although this is not how he sees himself he’s never portrayed as anything but. This is perhaps its most subversive and defiant aspect, the most obvious way in which this story “makes trouble”. But it’s of course trouble of a kind we’d all do well to welcome.
A Monster Calls reminded me quite a bit of I Kill Giants, which as some of you might remember I read and adored last year. But I think I actually liked this more. I Kill Giants does what it set out to do very well indeed, but A Monster Calls (perhaps in part because it’s longer) has added depth and a far wider emotional range.
It makes me gladder than I can say to know that a book like this is out there in the world, within reach of those who might need a monster just as much as Connor did. And I mean this far more widely than saying that A Monster Calls might offer comfort to someone facing similar circumstances; might do what an entire army of Well Meaning and Concerned adults never could – though I have no doubt that it might. But the wonderful thing about stories as good as this is exactly that their emotional truths always go far beyond their concrete facts.
In addition to everything else, A Monster Calls is a thing of beauty as a physical object: it has lovely decorated endpapers, cover illustrations underneath the dust jacket, and numerous illustrations by Jim Kay intermingled with the text, which do a lot to help set its mood:
A Monster Calls was based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, the Carnegie-winner author of Bog Child and three other novels, who passed away from cancer in 2007.
They read it too:
Jess Hearts Books
Fallen Star Stories
The Overflowing Library