I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Tell the Story to its End by Simon P. Clark
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on October 20 2015
Genres: Middle grade, Fantasy
Format: Finished hardcover
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The nitty-gritty: An atmospheric middle grade story, perfect for the Halloween season, but whose deeper meaning somehow escaped this non-middle grade reader.
When I saw the cover of this book as one of St. Martin’s Griffin’s offerings for review, I immediately requested a copy. I mean, just look at it! A creepy staircase with a shadowy figure at the top, it seemed like the perfect October read. And while it was wonderfully atmospheric and eerie, I didn’t get quite what I was hoping for from the story. The publisher is comparing it to A Monster Calls, which was another reason I was anxious to read it. But while Ness’s story was full of heartbreaking emotion, Tell the Story to Its End left me mostly cold and struggling to find meaning in a confusing story. Add in the fact that I didn’t realize it was middle grade (and I don’t think I would have requested it if I had), and you might understand my reaction. Goodreads ratings seem to be very divided—either readers love it, or they are just as confused as I am.
Oli and his mum (because we’re in England!) have come to the countryside to stay with Oli’s uncle, but for some reason, his father isn’t coming along. His mum tells him they’ll be staying for a couple of weeks, and that it will be a nice vacation from the hustle and bustle of London. But Oli isn’t convinced. He misses his friends, and he misses his dad, and no matter how many questions he asks, his mum won’t tell him what’s going on.
One day, his uncle shows him the hidden staircase that goes up to the dusty attic. Oli discovers a new world to explore, one that keeps him from worrying about when his dad will join them. But in the shadows of the attic lives a giant bat-like monster named Eren who hungers for stories. Eren convinces Oli to tell him story after story, and the more time Oli spends in the attic with Eren, the stranger his dreams become, until he can barely tell the difference between waking and dreaming.
When Oli finally discovers the truth about his father, he’s left with a tough decision: confront his real life, or hide himself in Eren’s world of storytelling.
Clarke has written a story about stories, which is a brilliant idea, although in this case the stories seem almost sinister, because they are pulling Oli further away from his family. I loved the concept of a monster who consumes stories in order to survive, but the execution just didn’t work for me. Eren speaks mostly in riddles, and perhaps I needed to be a twelve-year-old boy in order to understand them. What I did enjoy was the idea that Oli is the only one in the house who can see or hear Eren, and Eren acts as a sounding board for all of Oli’s fears about what is happening to his family.
The best horror stories are ones that address real fears, not supernatural ones, and Clarke definitely gets that part right, by throwing Oli into a situation he isn’t ready to handle. The longer Oli and his mum stay in the country, the more worried he becomes about his dad, and the more questions he has, questions that go mostly unanswered. The biggest horror for me, as a reader and a mother myself, was the fact that the adults refuse to tell him why his father has stayed behind, and it’s Oli’s imagination that fills in the blanks.
But while I loved the idea, the reason behind his father’s absence was not only unexpected, but almost laughable. My mind went to all the usual dark places, but when the truth came out I was left disappointed and confused. I wanted to get caught up in Oli’s problems, but I just didn’t feel anything. And without that emotional connection, all I wanted to do was to finish the book as quickly as possible, so I could read something else.
Clark’s dialog also bugged me, and again, it may be because I’m not the intended audience. My memories of being a twelve-year-old are not as clear as they used to be, but I’m quite sure I didn’t talk like the kids in this story. Oli’s new friend Em was particularly annoying, and I can only think that Oli was so desperate to make a new friend that he decided to hang out with her, despite her grating personality.
The bottom line is that I just didn’t feel an emotional connection to anything: the monster in the attic, the plight of Oli’s father, and even Oli himself, who was definitely the best part of the story. I wanted to get to the last page and have that “ah ha!” moment, where all the pieces finally fall into place, but it just didn’t happen. The ending seemed to come out of nowhere and left me more puzzled than ever. If you’re in the mood for creepy atmosphere and beautiful writing, this short book might do the trick, but for older readers looking for a story that will grab you, you might want to look elsewhere.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.