Book Review: What One Monster Did For Me

(Source: TowerBabel, Illustration by Jim Kay)

A Monster Calls has been on my to-read list for a long time, but for some reason, I never got around to it. I liked the premise and it looked interesting enough, but I never felt the pull.

I was browsing the internet in search of a book when I ran into The New York Times review of A Monster CallsThe writer recalls her time with one of the authors, Siobhan Dowd, whom she was was interning for in 1997. Unfortunately, Dowd passed away from breast cancer in 2007 before she could write the novel.

After Dowds passing, Patrick Ness was contacted and asked to consider finishing the novel. In an interview with Dymocks Booklovers, Ness explains why he took on the project: “There was such vividity and such power in her ideas, that I started getting ideas for how the story might go on almost without being able to help it.”

Needless to say, I had to give the novel a go.

Who am I?’ the monster repeated, still roaring. ‘I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable!’ It brought Conor up close to its eye. ‘I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.”

“You look like a tree,” Conor said.

What You Need to Know

(Source: PatrickNess, Illustration by Jim Kay)

Rating: *****

Genre: Contemporary, Fantasy

Age Group: 12+

Length: 216 pages

According to an article on ComingSoon, production has now started on the film adaptation of A Monster Calls. The cast includes Liam Neeson, Lewis Macdougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebell, and Geraldine Chaplin. The film will be directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and will be released on October 14, 2016.

What’s All the Talk About?

Thirteen-year-old Conor has a lot going on in his life. His mother has cancer, the bullies are after him, his grandmother wants to take him away, his best friend betrayed him, and his father is busy spending time with his new family. On top of everything, Conor has horrible nightmares, ones that wake him up in a cold sweat. Things only get worse when he begins to hear his name whispered late in the night. It’s the monster coming for him, the one from his nightmares.

Except, it isn’t.

One dark night, a monster appears in the form of a yew tree that is just outside his home. The monster is enormous, able to inflict serious damage. Conor isn’t scared of this monster, it’s not like the one in his nightmares. In fact, Conor is a little disappointed he’s not the monster who he thought would appear. Appalled at the lack of fright, the monster looms over his window and with a booming voice declares that he will visit him on further nights and tell him three stories. When he finishes the last story, Conor has to tell him one as well, his story. Over the course of the nights, the monster tells him the stories, each one with a different purpose. The first is of an evil queen, the second about a selfish man, and the third about an invisible man. Conor’s life intertwines with these stories very nicely, and we see him starting to grow, leading to the last and final story. Conor is then forced to relive the nightmare he fears the most, revealing a truth so well hidden, sending the reader on a whirlwind of emotions.

What I Think

It’s like having a papercut…in your heart.

Initially, I was skeptical about the premise of this novel: Would it be too childish? Would I feel out of my element? Would it leave me satisfied?

The problem was not that I found the “monster in the closet” trope unappealing, the issue was that I felt the story would be too middle grade. I am a 21-year-old college student that despite her love for fantasy and YA novels, finds it difficult to connect to characters that are so young at times. A 2012 survey conducted at The Guardian said 55% of YA readers are adults, so why am I having this problem? Am I forgetting what it felt like to be a teen? Not really, but…

I was wrong.

A Monster Calls isn’t a story about overcoming the fear of a giant monster, it’s about facing a terrifying truth.

(Source: Telegraph, Illustration by Jim Kay)

***Disclaimer: Potential spoilers ahead.***

That being said, I’ve been blown away from the writing style Ness employs to write this story, and the illustrations are breathtaking. Fellow blogger, TheBookSmugglers, puts it best in her review: “It is superb in its storytelling as it celebrates storytelling itself as the Monster tells his stories. It is unforgettable as it follows a young boy dealing with the saddest thing of all: the prospect of losing a mother. It is hopeful and beautiful even as it leads to the liberal production of heartfelt tears.”

Now, let’s talk about the monster.

Initially, I thought the monster would either be some kind of friend or mentor that Conor would turn to. In other words, Groot from The Guardians of the Galaxy, or even a hardwood version of Albus Dumbledore.

Nope, not even close. The monster is an ancient being: majestic, arrogant, proud, but definitely wise in his ways. One of my favorite things about the monster was that it helped set the theme of the novel, the story became almost fable-like, and helped the reader understand the depth of the novel. The reader knows something is coming, but not sure what it is. Oh, and I can soo imagine Liam Neeson as the monster. It’s Neeson!

The relationships in the book were well developed as well. Conor’s tumultuous relationship with his father, for example, reflected a harsh reality for many children. Rather than comforting his child through a trying time, his father is absent and too busy spending time with his new family. This relationship, in particular, made me quite angry and sad for Conor. We never see any mending between father and son in the novel, but I felt that this is an accurate depiction of other father/son relationships. Still, you deserve a good slap in the face for that, Mr. Conor’s dad.

Conor’s grandmother is a different story altogether. She is depicted as stiff, proper, and even unfeeling at times. Even though this was how Conor thought of his grandmother, the reader is clearly able to see that she struggles to cope with her daughter’s illness. This was where I thought Conor was a bit annoying because all he could think about was that his grandmother wanted to take him away. Although this is understandable, I couldn’t help but feel bad for his grandmother, especially when Conor destroys the precious items in her sitting room. Ouch.

“Her mouth closed, but it didn’t close into its usual hard shape. It trembled and shook, as if she was fighting back tears, as if she could barely hold the rest of her face together. And then she groaned, deep in her chest, her mouth still closed. It was a sound so painful, Conor could barely keep himself from putting his hands over his ears.”

Unfortunately, we do not see too much of Conor’s mother, even though she is a central part of the story. We know she is a single mother, has cancer, and loves Conor, but we do not get to meet much of her personality. This was something I had a problem with because Conor’s problems stem from his inability to accept that his mother might be dying. Personally, I just wanted to know why his mother sheltered him from her illness. It seemed cruel that she would keep her upcoming death a secret from Conor, but at the same time, it was understandable. The dynamic relationships also make this novel perfect for adult readers due to the maturity and realness the issues are dealt with. Blogger There’sABook, wrote about her cancer scare and how this book affected her, “It’s difficult to imagine them [her children] growing up without me and it came with a great deal of comfort that if this awful outcome came to pass that I would have a book to give to them that would bring them some sort of peace. Needless to say, this was an incredibly emotional read for me and one I won’t soon forget.”

The stories the monster tells Conor are beautifully interwoven throughout the novel. The tales are filled with imperfect characters, unexpected storylines, and even more unexpected conclusions. Each one reflects a challenge in Conor’s life: the first one deals with Conor’s misconception of good and evil, the second one with the destructive nature of selfishness, and the third with the meaning of being visible.

I liked the stories, they provided a fresh way of getting the point across. Rather than teaching a lesson, or reprimanding Conor, the monster used the stories to change his perception. I approve. 

This all leads to the fourth and final story, Conor’s truth. Originally, I thought it would be about a traumatic event in Conor’s life. Again, I was mistaken.

The monster forces Conor to confront his recurring nightmare. Conor puts up a good fight, he doesn’t want to face the meaning behind that nightmare, more importantly, he doesn’t want to admit what he did in that nightmare. Still, the monster is able to push Conor into accepting the truth of what he did, and that is where we see the first glimpses of tenderness from the monster.

“You do not write your life with words’ the monster said. ‘You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.”


(Source: Giphy)

The conclusion brought a culmination of sadness and satisfaction, leaving me both grief-stricken and happy. There is a clear emphasis on adolescent emotion and the transition from teen to adult. Suffice it say that I highly enjoyed this novel despite my initial thoughts and encourage readers of all ages to pick it up.

This novel might even help us embrace some of our own monsters, prepare to be hit in the feels.

Happy reading!


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