Review: ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness. Inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd

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Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.

Equally poignant and heart-breaking, A Monster Calls is a story about opposites – life and death, truth and lies. Thirteen-year-old Conor wakes up from a nightmare at 12:07 to find a monster, formed out of a yew tree, outside of his bedroom window. It is not the monster from his nightmare, but it is a monster nonetheless. By day, Conor is dogged in his determination to maintain a normal home life with his sick mother, but struggles with how students and teachers at school treat him. By night, the yew tree monster tells Conor tales that leave him confused and angered by their meaning, more so when they seem to fail to explain why the yew monster is there at all.

A Monster Calls, based on the idea by Siobhan Dowd, who passed away before she could write the story, perfectly captures the delicacy of grief. Patrick Ness weaves the mythical fables of the Yew tree monster stories with the day-to-day numbing frustration of feeling ostracised by people who, faced with the threat of coming across as insensitive or inappropriate, treat the grieving with heightened artificial sympathy or complete indifference.  

The hard cover edition contains haunting yet beautiful illustrations by Jim Kay that encapsulate the foreboding mood of the story. While aimed at the YA market (13+), this book is an important read, not just for those who have felt suffocated and confused by grief, but also for any reader who appreciates masterful story-telling. The subject matter of A Monster Calls is heart-breaking, but its treatment of the subject matter is beautiful and ultimately full of hope.

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Review: ‘The Sky so Heavy’ by Claire Zorn

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Set in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, The Sky So Heavy is a dystopian YA that follows Fin Heath, his 12-year-old, quick-witted brother Max, friend and schoolyard crush Lucy Tenningworth, and classmate Arnold Wong as they are thrown together in a survival quest following a nuclear missile disaster.

There have been numerous comparisons with John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, which actually kept this book on my ‘to read’ shelf longer. The Tomorrow series had such a huge impact, I didn’t want to be comparing the two. Thankfully, I found the comparison to be too far-reaching. The Tomorrow series is an action-packed guerrilla warfare, whereas The Sky So Heavy is a slow-burn, psychological journey. The perpetrators of the missile launch are never revealed, as the focus of the novel is centred on how much of their own humanity the characters are willing to risk in order to survive, rather than any direct involvement in the conflict. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are referenced throughout, reinforcing the themes of survival and the treatment of refugees.  The title, The Sky So Heavy, encapsulates the mood and pace of the novel, as the characters at first attempt to wait out the nuclear fall-out, before realising that time and resources may run out.

The strength of the novel lies in the relationship between the characters. The characters are quickly established as multidimensional and flawed. Fin’s mother is, for the most part, out of the picture, having left her family to pursue work in a disaster management position with the government, with the added bonus of a boyfriend. Fin’s dad is preoccupied with proving to the world that he is not too old for his new wife. Max is on the threshold of adolescence and grappling between wanting to be treated like an adult and maintaining a semblance of security by acting like a child. Lucy is emotionally and physically resilient, but reluctant to take the lead when it comes to her relationship with Fin. Fin is a refreshingly flawed narrator, as he downplays his role of having bullied Arnold Wong since they were at primary school together.

If anything, it felt like I didn’t know enough about the characters in order to feel any major emotional impact. Having said that, the fact that many of the characters withheld information from each other and the reader added to the realism of their situation and character. Fin reveals that he read the letter his mum had intended for only his father to read when she left, but Fin stops short of revealing the exact content of the damning letter. Arnold spent most of his life being bullied by Fin (whether directly, or indirectly), but still goes with him. The ending was satisfying, as, in keeping with the overall tone, it does not attempt to resolve all of the questions it poses. An enjoyable read.

 

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