At seven minutes past midnight, Conor O’Malley is visited by a monster. But it’s not the monster he’s expecting. This monster is wild and ancient. This monster comes in the form of a yew tree that usually stands atop the hill Conor can see from his bedroom window, in the middle of the graveyard. Except that now it is here, outside his bedroom window, and it wants something from Conor.
Conor O’Malley started getting nightmares after his mother got sick. In them he has terrible visions, visions which not even the monstrous yew can compare too, and it is perhaps for this reason that Conor is able to have a relatively nonplussed conversation with the tree outside his window. The mass of leaves and branches takes the shape of a man, and it seems to think Conor summoned him. The tree tells Conor he will tell him three true stories, after which Conor will have to tell the tree a truth in turn. When Conor realises that the truth the tree seeks is what happens in his nightmare, he point blank refuses and shrugs the tree off as a dream. But when he wakes to a carpet full of yew leaves, he begins to realise the monstrous yew might just be real.
We learn that Conor’s mother has cancer and is on another round of chemotherapy. Conor is moved in with his grandmother, a successful businesswoman whose house is clean to the point of being sterile, after his mother is admitted to hospital. His father is in America with his new family, and a new little sister that Conor has never even met. Things aren’t much better for him at school. He is bullied, and when his friend Lily tries to stand up for him, Conor denies any wrongdoing and it is Lily who ends up getting in trouble with the teachers. It seems like the entire world is out to get him. And then there is the monster.
A Monster Calls is not only beautifully written, but beautifully illustrated. Wild and haunting images of the yew tree appear alongside the story, almost as haunting as Conor’s grief itself. They add to what is already a compelling tale, and certainly intensify the reading experience.
Patrick Ness manages to tackle grief, denial, loneliness and anger — vast, universal topics that shape humanity — through a tale of a young boy. The plot is linear and the length short. There are only a handful of characters. There is something so simple and poignant about Conor’s tale that it transcends genre and readership; it is simply a story of humanity that will chime with any reader.
This is an important book. It will resonate with anyone — young or old — that has experienced loss and it doesn’t shy away from all the ramifications that accompany it. The characters will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book and despite the heavy subject matter, A Monster Calls is a story that will leave readers feeling ultimately uplifted. A triumph.