Conor has been having horrible nightmares for quite some time now. So when he hears a voice at exactly 12.07 am that calls from him from the graveyard not far from his house, he is not particularly impressed. Not even when the yew tree in said graveyard gets up and comes to him, insisting that he was the one who called it. The monster promises Conor three stories that will help him, then Conor will have to tell his own story – the story of the nightmare he dreams almost every night.
A Monster Calls is a beautiful book in very many ways. It had me actually crying a couple of times. It’s gripping, haunting and an intimate look at very big issues and the complexities that come with being human. I loved it.
I went into the book not knowing much about it. I bought it a while ago based on the illustrations and finally got around to reading it (with the upcoming adaptation it’s about damn time, too). I can only recommend that you try to go in as unprepared as I did. And I can only urge you to check it out. I think it will pay off for you, too. So, stop reading the review and go read the book.
In any case, from now on: SPOILERS.
Siobhan Dowd conceived of the story before she died, but was never able to finish it. So they handed her outlines and ideas to Ness who wrote the book. No matter who came up with what in the novel and how it changed in Ness’ process, the result is simply astounding and only enhanced by Kay’s illustrations, all in black and white (and more black than white) who are scary and beautiful and strangely reassuring – like the monster itself.
That being said, there is a certain poignancy to Dowd dying of cancer, as it turns out that Conor’s mother is dying of cancer and he feels ultimately at a complete loss and doesn’t know how to handle it. He has no social ties that really catch him and he doesn’t know how to confront his own conflicted feelings about the situation – that’s what he needs the monster for.
His loneliness, his anger, fear, frustration become obvious in the story. And almost even more painful than all of these emotions that threaten to drown him, is the fact that everybody around him understands him as little as he understands himself. The school offers leniency when what Conor needs is for one thing to be exactly as the rules say it is; his grandmother shows how to hold it together, when all Conor needs is to fall apart; Harry the bully may see Conor’s need, but he is set on using that against him. It’s only the monster who understands, and it’s through the monster’s understanding that Conor can finally confront and work with his own feelings.
This sensitivity and fine atunement the novel shows to Conor and his emotional state and the unquestioning courage that allows the confrontation of theses complex issues as a matter of course really is what made the book soar for me. But I also loved the monster and its stories, as well as the haunting, magical atmosphere. It’s one of the strongest novels I read in a while, both for children and adults.