I am a huge Patrick Ness fan!
Let me put that out there at the start of this.
I hugely admired his Chaos Walking Trilogy but was utterly blown away by the visceral emotion and mythic scope of A Monster Calls. There are few books that dig inside you as much as that one.
This book is different again: much closer to the feel of Chaos Walking although without the epic scope and scale – and no less powerful for that.
At one level, the book is a rip-roaring adventure: Seth, our protagonist, dies in the prologue. On page 11. Dies with 469 pages left to fill. Those pages recount what Seth does after his death. Maybe.
Having died in a frigid ocean, in winter, in America he is somewhat surprised to have found himself on the path of his parents’ old house in an abandoned and apparently post-apocalyptic English town in Summer. Alone. Perhaps.
Echoes of I Am Legend, Robinson Crusoe and George Romero’s films – minus the zombies – abound as Seth navigates this empty town, discovers and loots from camping stores and supermarkets. There’s even a discovery of a foot print to make the link to Robinson Crusoe stronger.
Seth discovers – or is discovered by – two other survivors in the town: the defensive and resilient Regine and the delightfully tenderly vulnerable Tomasz. And with them, the book acquires other echoes: a sinister black-clad visored Driver pursues them as if stepping out of a Terminator movie; the world has – or may have – integrated – or been forced to integrate – itself into a digital alternative reality programme in the style of The Matrix.
There are sufficient run-ins with, escapes and rescues from and fights with the Driver that this book could be read purely at that adventure story level.
It does follow the tropes, patterns and cliches of the science fiction / action adventure movie genre.
And behind the adventure that awaits Seth in the world he wakes up in is a beautifully tender and painful tale of growing up. Seth is one of the very few gay characters I can bring to mind in Young Adult fiction. His secret relationship with Gudmund is described in beautifully tender prose. The taking of the photograph, which eventually exposes their relationship, is real and touching and deeply moving. As is the pain of separation between them.
And beneath this coming-of-age narrative is the deeply traumatic tale of Owen, Seth’s younger brother, who was – perhaps – abducted from their home when Seth was eight.
It’s a book of books, of stories, of narratives. Characters’ pasts are revealed in dreams and flashbacks; characters reveal parts of their own stories to each other. The sharing and offering of their own stories rendering them vulnerable and binding the trio together.
Towards the beginning of the book in a flashback, Seth and his friends Gudmund, Monica and H are discussing the cheerleaders and Gudmund considers having sex with one for a bet to which Seth replies
“What,” Seth said, “and then secretly find out that she’s got a heart of gold and actually fall in love with her and then she dumps you when she finds out about the bet but you prove yourself to her by standing outside her house in the rain playing her your special song and on prom night you share a dance that reminds not just the school but the entire wounded world what love really means?”
He stopped because they were all looking at him.
“Damn Seth,” Monica said admiringly. “‘The entire wounded world.’ I’m putting that in my next paper for Edson.”
Seth crossed his arms. “I’m just saying a bet over Gudmund having sex with Chiara Leithauser sounds like some piece of shit teenage movie none of us would watch in a million years.”
And that’s the point. Seth knows how cliched some of the events are. He avoids living in the cliches of these narratives. The existence of convenient cliches cause him to come close to dismissing the reality of the world because it follows narrative tropes. He recognises that last-moment rescues would be expected if he were living through a story. He expects apparently dead antagonists to return for one last assault.
And he questions that. And we question it.
Is the world real? Are his memories and dreams real? Are Regine and Thomasz real? Are they echoes of Viola and Manchee from Chaos Walking? Are Owen, Gudmund, H or Monica real? Is the love between Seth and Gudmund real?
And does it matter?
This is one of the most thoughtful and – dare I use a deeply unfashionable word? – philosophical novels I have read for a long time. And the philosophy within it never becomes pure exposition. It is always embedded in character – and often undermined by either Regine’s pragmatism or Tomasz’ affection. As Regine tells Seth:
“I think I’m the only real thing I’ve got… wherever I am, whatever this world is, I’ve just got to be sure I’m me and that’s what’s real.” She blows out a cloud of smoke. “Know yourself and go in swinging. If it hurts when you hit it, it might be real too.”
In addition to the characters and relationships, the flashbacks and the power of stories, what (else) I love about this book – and I imagine others will be put off for exactly this as well – is that, in the end, on the final page, Seth and we are no clearer to knowing where this world is, how real Seth’s experiences are or what is going on. At all. Ness saw no obligation to explain, tie things up or concretise anything.
The entire book is unsettling. Disrupts our sense of reality. Deliciously tilts our world. And it achieves it through simply written, elegant prose.