I was ridiculously relieved to find on starting A Monster Calls that Conor, the main character, is 13. It was the almost picture book quality and the description of what happens that lead me to expect a much younger child. And that felt unbearable. I don’t know why. But Conor was the right kind of character for me. His age also means it’s a more mature story, and I would go so far as to say this is very much an adult book. Not that a child can’t read it, but I don’t know who I would suggest it to.
The other thing was whether Patrick Ness, who is a marvellous writer, should be allowed to write the book which Siobhan Dowd didn’t have time to even start. She planned it, and it’s easy to see where her thoughts must have been heading. Conor’s mother is dying of cancer, and knowing what we do, it feels as if it’s Siobhan’s own illness we are reading about. Or perhaps it’s simply Patrick’s skills in interpreting Siobhan’s plans which make the story what it is.
It feels almost wrong that two such great writers should somehow be ‘collaborating’ on a book. One early reaction I had to the news that Patrick had been asked to write the book with the help of Siobhan’s notes, was that he ought to be able to come up with his own story. He obviously is. What was needed was someone to write what Siobhan couldn’t.
And he certainly has. A Monster Calls feels like neither a Dowd or a Ness, which is probably for the best. It’s like having a baby; you get a little of both and it’s surprising how well the two go together.
Conor has nightmares about a monster. Some boys at school bully him. Then another monster turns up in his already difficult life. And his Grandma. As with all really good stories it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what isn’t.
The plot turns around the yew tree outside Conor’s home and his mother’s illness, which is further advanced than he’s willing to admit. Because she is a single mum, the situation feels much more threatening than if Conor had had a resident father, and his fears are ones I can identify with totally.
I mentioned there are pictures. The illustrations by Jim Kay are suitably menacing, and fit the story perfectly. I thought I wouldn’t want pictures, but I was wrong.
This is very much a Siobhan Dowd story, and the description of the chemotherapy and other treatments is harrowing. I’d love to know exactly how much material Patrick had to work with.