The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in the CHAOS WALKING trilogy by Patrick Ness. The series is set on a world colonized some time ago by settlers who met a few surprises upon their arrival. The biggest was the effect of a plague/virus, which caused all males (human and animal) to uncontrollably and constantly broadcast their thoughts so everyone hears what they were thinking. Because the thoughts couldn’t be turned off or tuned out, the constant background became known as “The Noise.” The second shock was that the planet held an intelligent native species the colonists call the Spackle. Between the ensuing war with the Spackle (won by the colonists), the social disruption caused by the Noise, and the general degradation of technology (often willful — the colonists wanted to get back to more basic, traditional living), life is rougher than perhaps planned. The series focuses on two young characters: Todd and Viola.
Todd is an almost thirteen-year-old boy living a hardscrabble life in his small village Prentisstown. An orphan (his mother died, like all women, in the plague), he’s the last boy in his village and is awaiting his birthday when he will go through the rite of passage making him a man. We meet him in the swamp near town, along with his dog Manchee, whose vocalized thoughts are mostly along the lines of “have to poo” and “squirrel!”, much to Todd’s dismay. He has a violent encounter with the town preacher Aaron who seems to have something against him, and then comes across a strange “empty space” in the Noise. Returning home through the village (a nicely structured method of introducing us not only to the setting but to several characters whose thoughts we overhear, as well as to a sense of underlying menace in town), Todd tells his adopted parents Cillian and Ben. Suddenly his world is turned upside down as they tell him he has to leave the village, and soon Todd is running for his life chased by a town posse led by Mayor Prentiss and his sadistic son.
On his way out of town, he comes across the source of the earlier “empty space” — a young woman who is a precursor to a new round of settlers. Her scout ship crashed, killing her parents, and she ends up running with Todd, the two of them hoping to reach the capital city where she can communicate with her fleet and Todd can learn the truth of Prentisstown and the world, since clearly most of what he grew up knowing was a lie.
The pace of the book is pretty breakneck as Todd and Viola find only temporary safety in place after place. It’s relentless and to be honest, a little more breathing space might have been nice, though the pace dragged me along pretty easily. I will say that one problem with the pace and cliffhanger upon cliffhanger episodic nature is that some of it is driven by the “Character Who Cannot Die,” never a favorite plot device for me. I admit this became annoying and is one of the flaws that detracted quite a bit from the book.
On the other hand, the slowly developing relationship between Todd and Viola is extremely well done. Predictable at its most basic level (we pretty much know where it will end), it is complicated greatly, and made highly original, by the nature of the Noise. Not just the Noise itself but also the way it makes their relationship wholly unequal: Viola knows everything Todd is thinking but she is a closed book to him as are all women to men (a point made explicit by the metaphor of his mother’s journal which he cannot read but she can). We see Todd groping toward an understanding of not just Viola but of the female, while she must learn to navigate the treacherous shoals of knowing so much and having so much disproportionate power. This is something the world as a whole has had to learn, and as they flee we get to see several examples of how individuals or social groupings have tried to do so — some with more success than others, to say the least.
The idea of women as “other” is mirrored by the Spackle, whom we don’t see much of in this book (they were allegedly exterminated in the war) but who will come to play a larger role in the later books. One does, however, play a huge role in this book and this comes in the context of the other major themes of the story: violence and masculinity, and the way the two are linked. I don’t want to say too much about this due to spoilers, but Todd’s ability/inability to kill is a major focus, as is the impact of killing (the title leads us down that path). This is handled I thought in vivid, moving fashion and was one of my favorite aspects of the novel. In general CHAOS WALKING is a series of large ideas, dealing at various times throughout the three books with gender, power, first contact colonization, slavery, racism. Sometimes more subtly than others, but I greatly enjoyed the depth Ness is reaching for.
As mentioned, The Knife of Never Letting Go is not without its flaws. The too-tough-to-kill character is one (picture Michael Myers or Jason), the pace is at times another. Sometimes there is a fine line between incredibly moving and effective and out-and-out manipulation of the reader. This will hold true throughout the series, but it remained a highly effective reader book by book, extremely moving, and filled with a depth and level of thought that greatly enhanced the reading experience. I highly recommend it, and recommend as well you obtain it as a set as the books end on cliffhangers.
Bleakness. A terrible cliffhanger. Inhumanity and loss and disappointment. Oh, yes, and first person present tense narration, by a 13 year old undereducated boy.
Lots of reasons for The Knife of Never Letting Go to irk me. And yet.
There’s loyalty and love and hope, even in the midst of darkness. There’s being a man by being true to your convictions, even if it’s not what everyone around you is telling you defines manhood. There’s stumbling and disappointing yourself and those around you, but picking yourself up and struggling on, because that’s what we need to do.
Also there’s some great writing in The Knife of Never Letting Go. I didn’t always like Todd’s backwoodsy narration, but sometimes his descriptions or insights would really smack me right between the eyes.
The Knife of Never Letting Go has an interesting science fiction setting: people have come from Earth to settle this planet with two moons that circles a far-distant star. The original settlers were looking for a place to live that would allow them to get back to the basics of life, a farming and horse-and-cart level of existence. But something went wrong somewhere along the way. Todd doesn’t really understand this, and a lot of the planet’s history is secret and is divulged bit by bit during the course of the novel; I wouldn’t want to spoil any of that.
But what Todd does know is that everyone in his town broadcasts their thoughts to everyone else, day and night, waking or sleeping. It’s telepathy run amok. Even the animals speak, though in a very animal-level kind of way.
It’s possible, but difficult, to try to hide what you’re thinking from other people. And there are only men in his town: no women. (Todd thinks he knows why, but there’s a lot that he doesn’t understand.) Todd is the youngest boy in his entire town, and in less than a month he’ll turn 13 (years run a little longer on this planet) and he’ll become a man. Another event Todd wrongly thinks he understands. It’s really quite fascinating, how many things Todd is wrong about.
There’s an overuse of some tropes that bugged me: [highlight to view spoiler]The religious leader who’s totally corrupted, and corrupts the town. A dog’s death. D: And the way the whole plot was centered around the journey to a town called Haven, which, of course, isn’t. A haven. While I did like a lot of things about this book, I’m not sure I was enough into it to want to read two more volumes of angst and bleakness to get to the end of the story. I’m not dashing down to the library to get the next book, but I might pick it up sometime.
“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk,” opens The Knife of Never Letting Go, “is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” This has been described by one critic as one of the best opening sentences he’d ever read, and boy does the rest of the book deliver too. It marks the first instalment of Patrick Ness’s CHAOS WALKING trilogy, a science fiction series set in a dystopian world where the thoughts of animals and men can be heard in a phenomenon called Noise. Unlike some of the other heavyweight dystopian trilogies, CHAOS WALKING has remained somewhat under the radar (although the film adaptation in the pipe line may soon change that). But it is unlike any of the other dystopian YAs out there, with their prescriptive, predictable plots and monotonous writing styles. The Knife of Letting Go is compelling and urgent and will have you turning its pages whether you’re a regular reader of YA or not.
The book centres around Todd Hewitt, who we first meet telling his dog Manchee to shut up. Manchee needs a poo, as he keeps telling Todd as they walk through the swamps near Prentisstown, where Todd lives. At twelve, he is the last boy left in a town full of men; the women have all been killed off by a disease (Todd is told) and all the men have been left hearing Noise — that is, they are able to hear each other’s thoughts, as well as those of all living creatures. Todd is soon to turn thirteen — officially making him a man. Though Todd doesn’t know it yet, because the men of Prentisstown count 13 months to every year, Todd is actually fourteen. He’ll come to realise that becoming a man has much less to do with age than it does with the choices he’ll make.
Noise permeates every waking moment of the men of Prentisstown’s lives, so Todd is astounded to find a silence — a gap in the noise. He runs back to tell Ben and Cillian, the two men who have raised him since the death of his mother. Running through the town with all these thoughts of silence ringing in his head, Todd alerts some of the townsmen to what he’s found as they can hear his Noise. Moments after he’s reached Ben and Cillian’s farm, the mayor’s son comes knocking for him.
And then the world as Todd knows it starts to collapse. Ben and Cillian bring out a pre-packed bag of food and supplies for Todd, that includes a diary written by his mother, and a map to another settlement (though Todd thought that Prentisstown was the only one that existed in New World). He runs, taking Manchee with him, whilst Ben and Cillian hold back the men of Prentisstown.
Back into the swamp Todd goes, where he manages to track the silence again. To his shock, he realises the silence is coming from a girl (a creature he’s only seen in educational videos). Her family has crash-landed on New World, and she has lost both her parents. Her name is Viola Eade (as Todd eventually finds out) and whilst he can’t hear her Noise, she can hear every word he thinks.
Todd, Viola and Manchee must make their way to Haven, a technologically forward settlement in New World so that Viola can try and contact her people and Todd can ‘warn them,’ as his mother’s diary pleads him to do. They come across more settlements along the way, one governed and run entirely by women, and one entirely by men. All the while they are being pursued by the men of Prentisstown, who Todd thinks are after Viola. But like all his preconceptions about the world he lives in, Todd will soon find he’s been wrong all along.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is beautifully written. Todd’s voice, his endearing southern drawl, stuck with my long after I’d finished the book. It’s stylistically exciting, as well as having a compulsive plot that will have you laughing and gasping and crying in equal measure. Ness’s ability to capture Todd’s innocence and naivety is commendable, and the last line of the novel will have readers reaching for the next instalment.
Chaos Walking — (2008-2010) Publisher: Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.
Okay, that’s it. If both you and Terry like it, then I know I have to read it.