Oh, this is an extraordinary book!
There are very few books that make me feel genuinely emotional and (a very little bit) teary but this was one. There is something about in simplicity of the prose, the inevitability of the ending, the unflinching acceptance of extraordinary and unavoidable pain, the wonderful mythic nature of the eponymous monster… It is simply deeply powerfully moving.
The story revolves around Conor O’Malley, a school boy whose mother is painfully and fatally ill. Although its not spelled out – and one of the delights here is that Ness is respectful enough of his audiences that he doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out – it is clear that she is suffering from cancer. As the story is based in an idea Siobhan Dowd had as she faced and lost her battle with cancer there is a potent autobiographical parallel here.
As Conor is awoken by the sound of his name one evening he sees “the great yew tree that rose from the centre of the graveyard” as it’s branches “gathered themselves into a great and terrible face, shimmering into anything and nose and even eyes peering back at him.” The yew tree becomes “the spine that the mountains hang upon… The tears that the rivers cry … The lungs that breathe the wind … The wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly… The stag, the mouse, the fly that are eaten… The snake of the world devouring its tail… Everything untamed and untameable”. This language is so lyrical, so primal, so mythic that the creature itself is a towering literary creation.
It reminds me of The Iron Man in its sheer alienness and inhumanity.
Stories are at the heart of this book. The Monster – like Dickens’ ghosts – has three stories to tell and asks for (expects, demands) a fourth rom Conor.
Half way through the novel, Conor discovers that his mother’s most recent chemotherapy treatment is derived from the yew tree. We witness him from inside the novel try to force the narrative into a fairy tale on which he has summoned the monster in order to heal his mother. Ness, however, refuses to allow the narrative to become quite so trite: it is genuinely heartbreaking when the Monster tells him “I did not come to heal her. I came to heal you”. In fact we the reader share Conor’s experience: the conclusion is utterly inevitable; we all know what will happen; but we all hope for and deceive ourselves into looking for an illusory happy ending.
Parallel to the Monster, Ness offers us snapshots of Conor at school. These chapters offer a contrast to the myth of the Monster but complement it beautifully. The strained friendship between him and Lily is beautifully judged and again Ness avoids the temptation to be trite and wrap up the trauma with his mother in a jarring sugar coated romance. Understated, quiet and moving, the friendship, their alienation and reconciliation is – as with the whole novel – simply beautifully judged.
This is as close to perfection as I could ask for in a novel. Simply stunning. I challenge anyone not to be moved to (near) tears by it. These are characters who will live with you and hang you beyond the end of the novel. Beautiful.