Today’s challenge is to identify
A book that broke your heart.
There is only one contender in this category and it is Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls.
I have read this novel a dozen times: initially as simply a book for myself; later as a class read for work. I have read it in my head and read it aloud and every time it gets me.
Everything about the novel is heart-breaking! Even it’s inception: it was begun by Siobhan Dowd before she died of breast cancer in 2007, aged only 47 and completed by Ness. As Patrick Ness wrote in his Author’s Note
She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.
Patrick Ness, in the Author’s Note to A Monster Calls
The story revolves around a young boy, Conor O’Malley coming to terms with his mother’s losing fight with cancer and that autobiographical echo tugs at the heart strings already. Arriving one night, striding across the fields towards his house, comes a monster formed from the yew tree in the nearby church graveyard.
The monster is a wonderful creation: wild and dangerous and violent and caring and healing. And surrounded by echoes of myth and legend and the earth itself. A creature woven through with the wildness and unpredictability of story itself. Yet also a powerful and original creation. And the relationship between him and Conor is so beautiful and deftly managed.
The monster’s eyes widened. Who am I? it said, its voice getting louder. Who am I?
The monster seemed to grow before Conor’s eyes, getting taller and broader. A sudden, hard wind swirled up around them, and the monster spread its arms out wide, so wide they seemed to reach to opposite horizons, so wide they seemed big enough to encompass the world.
I have had as many names as there are years to time itself! roared the monster. I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!
A great arm swung down and snatched Conor up in it, lifting him high in the air, the wind whirling around them, making the monster’s leafy skin wave angrily.
Who am I? the monster repeated, still roaring. I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable!
It brought Conor up close to its eye. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.
“You look like a tree,” Conor said.
There is so much to break the heart in this beautiful story even without Conor’s mother’s cancer: Conor is bullied mercilessly at school; he aches almost palpably for his absentee father; his relationship with his grandmother…. And Ness’s control of these threads, alongside and through the story of the mother’s illness, is exceptional as he draws all these elements together seamlessly, wonderfully.
A huge part of the novel, as well as the story, are the absolutely gorgeous illustrations by Jim Kay which bring the novel to life. A few examples include
One line in particular gets me every time. The monster reveals that the yew tree from which it is formed is
the most important of all the healing trees, it said. It lives for thousands of years. Its berries, its bark, its leaves, its sap, its pulp, its wood, they all thrum and burn and twist with life. It can cure almost any ailment man suffers from, mixed and treated by the right apothecary.
And that raises certain expectations in the reader’s and in Conor’s minds. But then, later, the monster
reached down a hand and plucked him into the air.
You are the one who called me, Conor O’Malley, it said, looking at him seriously. You are the one with the answers to these questions.
“If I called you,” Conor said, his face boiling red, tears he was hardly aware of streaming angrily down his cheeks, “it was to save her! It was to heal her!”
There was a rustling through the monster’s leaves, like the wind stirring them in a long slow sigh.
I did not come to heal her, the monster said. I came to heal you.
“I did not come to heal her… “
Oh my good God!
I challenge anyone not to read this book and be moved. And I am not ashamed at all that I have read this out loud to classes and let them hear the catch in my voice at this line.