But a knife ain’t just a thing, is it? It’s a choice, it’s something you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don’t. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again.
Todd Hewitt was born into an overcrowded swamp and an overcrowded cemetery called Prentisstown, a town where a germ has killed half the men and all the women. The surviving men have been driven mad by “Noise”, the ability to hear each other’s thoughts whether they want to or not. Todd will officially become a man in thirty days. He doesn’t know what that means, except he will finally know all of men’s business and be able to make choices about his own life. He is the youngest in Prentisstown, the last to yet reach manhood. The only companion he has is Manchee, a dog he never wanted who also has the “Noise” germ. Todd hears something he shouldn’t, sending him and Manchee running for their lives.
Narrated in the first person by the unlikely and unwilling hero, The Knife of Letting Go is not an easy read. Todd is perpetually frustrated at his status of an almost man. He has a great sense of self-importance, but no authority or knowledge to better his situation. What’s most appealing about Todd is, despite his limited knowledge and authority, he does not passively wait for someone to rescue him. Much of the tension throughout the novel is derived from watching Todd throw himself headfirst into any given situation, and waiting to see if he will be able to get himself out or drag others down with him.
Manchee has very little dialogue, but his earnestness, innocence and adoration of Todd is perfectly conveyed through two-worded questions, repetition and italicised emphasis. There are a host of minor characters Todd and Manchee meet along the way, and while many interactions are brief, there is enough nuance of individuality about each minor character to leave their presence lingering long after they disappear from the pages.
The layout and structure of The Knife of Letting Go is captivating. The 479-page book is split into 42 short chapters, with each short chapter ending with a hook. The “Noise” is visually represented through bold graphics and seminal fight scenes are intensified through poetic structure. The narration is filled with phonetic spelling to illustrate Todd’s illiteracy without satirising or belittling his character.
The Knife of Letting Go is, at its heart, an exploration of what it is to become a man and what sacrifices are to be made along the journey from innocence to experience. Many questions are raised throughout the novel (Why did all the women die? Why is Todd being hunted? What will happen when Todd officially becomes a man? Is there are cure for the “noise”? Will Todd face repercussions for his actions?) but not all of them are answered in this book. In many ways, it made reviewing this book difficult, as I am yet to finish reading the series. However, this did not detract from my overall enjoyment of this book. It is the poignancy of relationships forged, and the impact these relationships have on Todd’s search for a sense of place, that makes this novel beautiful.