A Monster Calls: Book Review

I will never forget the way my high school computer science teacher’s face twisted when the secretary’s voice came over the intercom and asked that I go to the office. She knew. I knew. But there really wasn’t anything for either of us to say. My brother was waiting outside to take me to the hospital.

I had spent most of my time at school that spring in this very strange world in which I felt completely invisible, too wrapped in my own grief and worry for my mother to see others around me or even to be seen by them. Except for the moments when I was too visible, when teachers who never once spoke to me in my years at the high school sought me out to tell me how badly they felt about my mother. Somehow, being seen was sometimes even more isolating than being invisible.

Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls threw me back almost thirty years as I devoured it the space of a few hours. I could not stop reading, and I am gutted.

Conor’s mother has cancer and the treatments are not working anymore. She’s moved into experimental treatments, and hope for her recovery is minimal. He is alone, with no one who can break into his isolation. His father has started a new family in America, his grandmother is remote, and his former best friend revealed one of Conor’s secrets to the class. And he is faced with the same repeated nightmare until the night that the monster calls outside his window and promises to tell him stories that will allow Conor to tell his own truth. The stories are twisty; the people Conor expects to be the hero aren’t, and the villains frustratingly have good points, too. In a set of stories where we should see clear cut light versus dark, we see complexity instead.

That complexity, that humanness, prepares Conor to understand the truth of himself: He is twisty, he is good and bad, he is complex. His desire to hold on to his mother is sometimes, momentarily, offset by his desire to be done with the waiting and to move on to the next part of his life. And he worries that his truth, his momentary desires are responsible for her death, because he isn’t holding on hard enough. After all, the monster tells him that belief is half of healing. Shouldn’t the opposite be true? That lack of faith prevents it? Conor’s deepest secret, darkest fear is that this momentary thought has made him a monster. The monster’s deepest truth is that this momentary thought makes him human.

The monster pushes Conor to understand the truth and to speak it, to realize who he is, and that momentary thoughts aren’t the same as actions. The monster tells Conor, “If you speak the truth… you will be able to face whatever comes.” And Conor does; he acknowledges his longing to keep his mother as stronger than his desire to be done. Speaking the deeper truth of his love allows him to begin to let go.

The day that my brother took me to my mother’s bedside in the hospital, I had to let go. My deepest, monstrous secret wasn’t that I wanted it to be over, but that I was willing to have her suffer if I could keep her with me longer. I didn’t know what her suffering and pain would look like, but if it kept her in my life one day longer, I wanted it. I had to balance my desire to have her with me with her need to be done. And the deepest truth of those days was that loving was enough to allow me to let go.

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