At first glance, Conor O’Malley appears to be a mature, self-sufficient young man. Despite being only 13 years old, he accepts the hardships in his life – his father’s desertion to start a new life and a new family overseas, his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health – with a brave face. He prepares his own meals, cleans the house without being told, and patiently helps his mother through her bouts of radiation-induced vomiting. He is bullied at school but takes it stoically, without cowering or tattling. He gives every impression of being a boy who is dealing with an unfortunate situation with admirable grace and composure.
Until, one night, he hears a monster whispering his name.
The monster is a wild, fearsome thing, made of branches and thorns and night: “‘Who am I?’ the monster repeated, still roaring. ‘I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! […]’ It brought Conor up close to its eye. ‘I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.’”
The monster claims he’s been called by Conor himself, to assist in a matter of life and death. He announces that over the next few days he will tell Conor three stories. When he has finished these stories, Conor must tell a story as well. And not just any story – Connor must tell a true story, the one that he is most afraid of.
The stories the monster tells are marvelous, full of witches and healers, princes and farmers. There is a magic to them, and the power and importance of stories is one of the themes of the book. As the monster explains Connor, “Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase and bite and hunt.” I loved this line, as well as many others throughout A Monster Calls. It’s brimming with memorable quotes full of mind-blowing insight, especially in the monster’s tales. Here are just a couple:
“‘You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.’”
“‘…[I]t does not matter what you think, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day…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.’”
As the days go by and the monster continues to visit Conor and tell him stories, the boy’s carefully maintained composure begins to crack. He grows farther and farther away from everyone around him, until only the monster seems real. It soon becomes clear that Conor’s world is falling apart, and so is he.
Ness has written a dark, intense, powerful novel that shows how isolating and destructive loss can be, especially for a child. A Monster Calls isn’t a book, it’s a force, and it impacted me on a conceptual, intellectual level rather than a personal, emotional one. For this reason I’m not able to say, like many other bloggers have said, that I was shattered by this book, or that I was moved to tears or felt an intimate connection to it. Instead, I appreciated it as a work of art, both in terms of the gorgeous writing and the stunning, shadowy illustrations that creep along the margins of the pages.
I had a hard time assigning a rating to A Monster Calls; it’s like no other story I’ve ever read and defies all attempts at classification. In the end, though, this distinctiveness is what prompted me to grant it five stars. I appreciate any book that can show me something new or make me look at a subject in a way I never have before, and A Monster Calls does both of these things. This, combined with Ness’ exceptionally wise, beautiful prose, make for a book you don’t want to miss.