“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”
I read A Monster Calls and Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck back-to-back, and they seemed eerily similar in more ways than one. My original plan was to review them together, but after writing my review for Wonderstruck, I realized that although A Monster Calls is also a children’s book and is also heavily illustrated, and is also about a young boy experiencing loss, it deserves its own review.
Based on an idea by the late author Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer in 2007, Patrick Ness was asked to complete the story along with illustrator Jim Kay. Conor, a typical thirteen-year-old boy, awakens one night from a recurring nightmare at 12:07 a.m. and hears someone, something, calling his name. As he fearfully peers out his bedroom window, across the yard to the nearby graveyard, he realizes the giant yew tree that usually stands guard over the headstones has appeared in his backyard, and it has sprouted monstrous features. A monster has come calling, and it’s there for a reason: he has come to tell Conor three stories. In return, Conor must tell the monster a fourth story, and “it will be the truth.”
The driving emotional element of the story is that Conor’s mother is sick, very sick, and has been in and out of the hospital for various treatments. It’s not too hard to figure out what’s wrong, although Ness, in good writerly fashion, never comes out and names the disease. His mother gamely assures Conor throughout the story that she’s getting better. On a deeper level, we know that Conor is not convinced by these assurances, and so the monster arrives to help him deal with the truth.
In between the monster’s parables and Conor’s nightmares, he deals with his waking life: being bullied at school, taking care of the house while his mother lies in bed, and enduring his bossy grandmother who comes to help out. It is implied that Conor will live with her when, well, when all this is over. And he doesn’t like that idea one bit.
Jim Kay’s illustrations fit the tone of the story perfectly. In a black and white, smudged inky style he draws from Conor’s point of view: a small boy looking up at the giant yew monster who lurks above him. Conor’s surroundings mirror his gloomy existence: the solitary graveyard near his house in moonlight, the monster with his human yet tree-like attributes, a garden of tangled thorns. Conor’s recurring dream of his mother falling over a cliff is rendered with angry, dark strokes, yet his mother is a white silhouette. All of the illustrations let the reader know that something bad is going to happen.
But as Conor’s mother continues her inexorable slide into death, the monster does what he has come to do: to help Conor face and deal with the inevitable. Yes, the bad thing is coming and he can’t escape it. But he can, and does, learn how to accept it. Even though the ending was no surprise, and I figured out the significance of “12:07″ long before the end, I was still caught off guard by the powerful emotional impact of the final pages. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in tears.