Editor’s note: this review follows on from the December 6 review by Tracy Kashi. The reviewers’ experiences are different – one living with cancer, and one who read the book at school, where it is used to showcase issues with bullying.
A Monster Calls is a beautifully sad book about dealing with the grief that arises from terminal cancer. I found that the film was just as good. I’m writing this review following the earlier Central Bylines review by Tracy Kashi as I had a different reaction to A Monster Calls – however, just because I disagree doesn’t make either of our views less or more valid as a review is exactly that, an opinion.
I first read A Monster Calls when I was about 12 or 13 after I picked it up from the school library’s bookshelf. While I agree with Tracy that this book is more for mature teenagers and shouldn’t be part of a year seven curriculum, I do think this book is important to have at least in school libraries where teenagers have the choice to seek out or stumble across this book since the messages are important from a mental health standpoint.
Why this book is important to read
Although A Monster Calls is a very dark novel, the message of the book is about coming to terms with grief. The main character – 13 year old Conor – has nightmares, struggles to cope with grief, and often lashes out in anger.
One reason why I love this book and think it is important for mature teenagers to read is that it shows different aspects of grief such as anger and lack of emotion, which aren’t really aspects of grief that are normalised or talked about.
In the book Conor is portrayed as clueless about the reality of his mum’s terminal cancer and throughout the book struggles with a Monster made out of a yew tree (which turns out to be a part of him). However Conor isn’t actually clueless, he’s in denial about his mum’s condition which is an aspect of grief.
Conor’s mum is portrayed in the film as extremely ill and bed-bound. No health details or support are mentioned but considering the book is told from Conor’s viewpoint, we can assume that he wasn’t allowed to see these details of his mum’s health, which perhaps allowed for more denial of the reality of his mum’s condition. It seems that she encouraged Conor to be in denial by telling him she’s going to be ok and that she’ll come back from the hospital.
By the end of the book and film, Conor finally comes to terms with the fact that his mum will die.
“Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
The three stories of the Monster
In the book the Monster comes to Conor at night to tell him three stories after he awakens from a nightmare.
The first story is about a prince and his bride running away because the queen wants to marry the prince after the king died so she stays in power. The prince awakens to find that his bride has been killed and the prince convinces the villagers that the queen killed his bride, and she is sentenced to die.
It turns out that the prince was the one who had killed the bride. The meaning behind this story is the willingness to believe lies – even our own – in favour of comfort.
The second story is about a pastor and apothecary, where the pastor refuses to let the apothecary use the yew tree as medicine. In time, the pastor’s daughters become ill, and the pastor asks the apothecary to cure them. He declines as the pastor will only believe in the medicine when his daughters are healed, but the treatment requires belief for healing to take place, so the daughters die.
The yew tree destroys the parson’s house because the parson changed beliefs when it suited him, and Conor wakes to find he has destroyed his grandma’s living room. The underlying message of this story is again about belief, changing our beliefs to suit our own story, to suit our own needs.
But what this ultimately means is that if we do this, we don’t actually have any beliefs that we stand for. And we see Conor’s anger come through here because he tells himself that his mum can be healed with the treatments she’s on, but subconsciously he knows that she will die from the illness and refuses to accept this.
In the third story, a man feels invisible as people have become used to not seeing him, so the man makes people see him by calling for a Monster.
Other people at Conor’s school know about his mum’s illness and they don’t speak to him anymore, because they are afraid to say something wrong and this makes Conor feel invisible. The Monster (Conor) attacks the school bully for ignoring him and because of his anger about the other students not speaking to him.
The Monster warns Conor that there are worse things than not being seen. Conor realises this as the students are now all afraid of him, and he is further away from support than before.
“Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary”Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
For the final story it turns out that it’s Conor’s turn to tell a story – to relive his nightmare and face the truth or risk the Monster (or truth) eating him alive. The Monster is a metaphor for Conor’s denial and anger – the more he denies the truth, the angrier he becomes.
The purpose of these stories from the Monster (or the boy’s subconscious) is for Conor to sort out what’s going on in his head and process his emotions. Conor literally fights with himself mentally because his world is coming apart in every aspect and he is struggling to cope with and process everything. Each one of the stories illustrates an aspect of Conor’s denial, and the stories help Conor face up to his worst fear.
In the end, the truth of Conor’s story is that he wants it to be over, for all the suffering to end – even though this means his mum will die. Connor is in denial because he felt guilty that he wanted his mum to die, even if it’s to end her suffering. Ultimately he wants things to go back to the way they were before.
After he faces this fear, his grandma takes him to the hospital where his mum is about to die.
“And a part of you wished it would just end, said the monster, even if it meant losing her.”Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
Something I find very interesting throughout the book is that Patrick Ness is very careful to not mention the word cancer – because he doesn’t have to. It’s very clear through family interactions and the tense atmosphere throughout the book that she has cancer. It is also clear that his mum hasn’t been honest about the severity of her condition and this has fed into Conor’s denial.
Being in denial allowed Conor to avoid confronting the truth and this meant his anger kept growing. Conor believed the Monster came to heal his mum, but the Monster reveals that he actually came to heal Conor.
A Monster Calls isn’t meant to be cheerful. It deals with the realities of grief, fragile family relations, and illness surrounding cancer. It also teaches how ignoring the truth can be dangerous.
“You were merely wishing for the end of pain, the monster said. Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.”Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls