A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: a book review

A Monster Calls was based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could write it, then given to author Patrick Ness to run with. It was published in 2011. 

The idea fleshed out became a powerful story that won acclaim and awards. I admit those things with a heavy heart because reading it over the half term nearly broke me and my husband. 

We read it in a hurry because we were told by our daughter’s school that it was her first term’s English book. The subject matter, a boy with a terminally ill mother concerns us as I happen to be a terminally ill mother. 

Reading it was up there with getting the prognosis I wasn’t going to recover from breast cancer. Not because it was true to my life but because it was a horrifying, harrowing, and relentlessly dark nightmare. 

Now let me be clear, I have been very open with my daughter about my prognosis and that I have incurable cancer, what has been left out is the timeline, but when I’m told by my oncologist that it is time, I will tell my daughter. 

However, should my daughter have read the book in a school environment, it would have been just recognisable enough to damage her and give her a terrifying vision of our future.

Living with cancer is complicated

Can you image an 11-year-old reading in class about a 13-year-old boy enduring the following? Severe psychological distress, disassociation, violent bullying, his best friend’s betrayal, his father’s rejection, a cold grandmother, and then the death of his mother. In the end it turns out the poor kid is the monster because he wanted it all to be over.

Why has it become required reading for 11-year olds in their first year of secondary school? I asked my friends who have had to pick up the pieces after having their child come back from reading this book with dark questions about death and illness.

This is from mothers who are doctors and other emotionally intelligent women, who couldn’t even get through the first two chapters. Well according to the English department of my daughter’s school none of them had read it in full but someone on the department three years ago thought it was ‘good on bullying’ and since then “well we’ve never had any complaints.“

There is so much that is dark and brutal in the world but for their first year at secondary school surely kids can be uplifted, encouraged and inspired? Bullying is important to talk about, but Judy Bloom’s Blubber and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game to name just two authors who managed to do it in both beautiful and palatable ways. 

You are more than your prognosis

My biggest beef is that the book is lying to children about life with cancer. As mentioned above my daughter knows I am incurable and I’m fighting. Advanced cancers are incurable but controllable in the hope it will slow down disease to give the best quality of life for as long as possible. 

Don’t paint us all as tragedies and Hollywood cliches. 

Living with cancer in the 2020s is complicated… I’m complicated, and modern cancer treatment is changing all the time. I’m not bald, skinny and tragic, I’m fat (from steroids), hairy and angry, but I still get food on the table….go to chemo sessions, physio appointments, get massages and make my kids laugh. 

In other words: I am more than my prognosis.

Why can’t A Monster Calls show the light and the dark? 

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that cancer is only like that experienced in the book. A lot of cancers are curable and can be manageable for a long time… which is something the book doesn’t portray. 

Cliches that belong to the 1970s like the uncontrollable vomiting depicted in the book would be well treated with one of many brilliant anti emetics and steroids now available. Worst of all, the false horror of isolation depicted throughout the book. It does such a disservice to my incredible team in hospital. I am a phone call away from a specialist nurse, and I meet regularly with intelligent and compassionate doctors.

I have experienced kind and efficient GP receptionists, pharmacists, and other health professionals, as well as so much love from friends and neighbours. Charities also provide so much support; I have personally benefited from Chai, Future Dreams, Penny Brohn, Make 2nds Count, Macmillan, and Metupuk and there are lots more. 

The whole family receives free and fantastic counselling from specialist charities too. There really is a myriad of support out there from diagnosis through to palliative care which belies the bleak and lonely picture painted in the book.

I’m not saying only let our kids read Enid Blyton, but make sure the darkness of life is well balanced with light. Just because something is deemed worthy doesn’t make it healthy. I would love to think that by the time youngest (6-year-old now) starts secondary school, English boards will have a better choice of books that feature sensitive topics like bullying and cancer, and that they tread a little more softly on the dreams of 11-year-olds. 

From the looks of the trailer to the 2016 film version of the book they used the actress Felicity Jones, and they gave her a bit more to do than throw up, delude herself, look cute in a scarf and die. However, I still I can’t bring myself to watch it, no matter how great the CGI trees.

Ignorance can be a death sentence 

One in two people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. It’s so important not to stereotype the situation. Many will have a simple, short and effective treatment that cures them completely. 

Ignorance was my death sentence. If I had known that women in their 30s and 40s can have breast cancer and be cured, I might have checked myself regularly and caught it in time. 

Let’s not spread fear and cliché and remember that sometimes, one woman’s dying wish is another dying woman and her children’s poison.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is available to buy HERE.

If you have been affected by this article please get in contact with a cancer counselling charity for help.

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After being awarded a Cameron Macintosh scholarship, Tracy completed my Masters of Performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and made my West-end debut in RENT at the Prince of Wales theatre. She have worked as an actress and a singer and appeared many times at the Royal Festival Hall.

After a cancer diagnosis in 2018, Tracy turned to comedy and writing and performed MY CANCER GAP YEAR, raising funds for charity and awareness about breast cancer in younger women. Tracy was re-diagnosed as terminal just a few weeks before the full show opened. Furious re-writing commenced and somehow with live music, comedy and possibly too much information, the show debuted in the main theatre at the JW3 on 31st October 2019. All the artist profits went to the breast cancer charity Future Dreams.

Find out more at tracykashi.com.