This came as a surprise. I bought the book because I am a sucker for illustrations, especially black and white ones. Jim Kay’s particular dark style intrigued me and since Patrick Ness has been hyped for his Chaos Walking trilogy, I thought I’d give this a try. I never expected to become this emotional about the story but even though it doesn’t relate to my own life at all, it touched me on a level few other books have.
Illustrated by: Jim Kay
Published: Walker Books, 2011
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting– he’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It’s ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth. From the final idea of award-winning author Siobhan Dowd – whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself – Patrick Ness has spun a haunting and darkly funny novel of mischief, loss, and monsters both real and imagined.
The yew tree just outside Conor’s window has always been particularly interesting to Conor’s mom. Now that Conor has been plagued by nightmares – well, the nightmare – for months, this yew tree turns into a monster whose mission becomes clearer as the story spins along. Conor, a very mature thirteen-year-old, is immediately likable. I felt with him the moment I got to meet him. On the very first page. Whether it was waking up from the nightmare, cleaning the kitchen and packing his own lunch, or being invisible at school, he was an emotionally engrossing protagonist whom I simply wanted to be a little happier.
There are few sidecharacters and they don’t take up too much space in the story, but each and every one of them felt fleshed out and real. I even liked Lily and the group of bullies we only get to see a little of. Within just a few pages, Patrick Ness throws his readers into this entirely believable world of a young boy dealing with everyday life and his mother’s illness.
As a fantasy reader, I was most interested in the monster, of course. And as monsters go, it is pretty amazing. Even without the amazing illustrations, it comes to life and transmits this feeling of age and wisdom and something belonging to the oldest Earth. I grew to like the monster quite a bit, as I liked most characters. The monster tells Conor three tales with a specific goal – after the first one I should have seen the twists coming. Whether it was my own stupidity (or I was too enthralled in the story to remember) or Patrick Ness’ talent as a writer, the first two stories took me by surprise and were entertaining and shocking at the same time.
By story number three I felt I understood the drill. But after three, of course, comes four. And I won’t say much about this one. It offered the perfect ending to an already tragic story. This was the part that surprised me most. I do cry a lot when books are sad but for the most part, I was quite reserved while reading this story. Until the last third which made me well up unexpectedly. I didn’t know I felt so much emotion for these characters until I felt my eyes brimming with tears. The ending was perfect and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are still writers of young adult fiction who believe in the craft and the power of words. You won’t find too-pretty-for-their-own-good girls in here, stumbling into a magic world they didn’t know existed where they are princesses and fall for the brooding, dark guy. You will find the depths of humanity brought to life and a handful of characters that can touch you at your core and tell you a story worth telling.
THE GOOD: A touching story, peopled with great characters and a monster most unlike those of our childhood’s fairy tales. And a tearjerker.
THE BAD: If I had a say in it, I would have made the story longer. I wanted more of Conor’s school life, especially his broken friendship with Lily.
THE VERDICT: A truly excellent young adult book with a message at its core and a thrilling plot as a wrapper. This is what books are for and this is how you write for a young audience. You treat them with respect, as you do your characters. Well done, Patrick Ness!