And it doesn't help that at school, ever since his mother's illness began, former friends avoid Conor, teachers overlook him and the school bully isolates him, leaving Conor to feel alienated, invisible and abandoned by everyone.
One night, as Conor wakes from his nightmare, at precisely 12:07, he hears someone calling his name outside. Getting up, Conor sees the giant Yew tree that has been overlooking the graves in the churchyard for hundreds of years, outside his window. Once outside, the monster-sized tree is surprised that Conor isn't afraid of him, but assures him that he will be. But how could this monster possibly scare a boy who knows worse monsters already?
The next day, convinced it was all a dream, Conor is surprised to find leaves and twigs on his bedroom floor. But that night, at exactly 12:07, the monster is once again outside Conor's window. Insisting that it was Conor calling him that made him go walking again, the monster also tells Conor that he will tell him three parables, and when he is finished, Conor will tell a fourth story, his own story, and that it must be the truth or he will eat Conor alive.
The very next day, Conor's cold, disagreeable, overbearing grandmother arrives at the house to take care of his mum. That night the monster returns, and tells Conor the first parable about a prince, the prince's love and the queen, his stepmother. Not liking the way the parable end, Conor discounts it. The next day, when he is bullied again, Conor turns on the girl who tries to help him, and lets her take the fall for trying to help him.
As his mother's cancer gets worse, and it becomes clear that the new round of chemotherapy isn't helping, she is hospitalized and Conor's grandmother insists he come live with her, since Conor's parents are divorced and his father is living in the United States with his new family.
Not happy at his grandmother's, Conor arrives home from school angry and destroys his grandmother's clock, a family heirloom, and everything else in the room. That night at 12:07, the monster appears in his grandmother's backyard and tells Conor his second parable about an apothecary who refuses to help save a parson's daughters who are ill. Not liking the ending, Conor again discounts the parable. When his grandmother sees the ruined room, instead of punishing him, she stops speaking to Conor, rendering him invisible.
The next night the monster returns at 12:07 and tells Conor his third parable, about a man who was invisible because people refused to see him. At school the next day, Conor confronts to boy who has been bullying him and beats him up.
In fact, each time the monster tells a parable, Conor disagrees with the ending, and yet, he acts them out the next day. And it is only after he has caused pain and destruction, that he realizes what he has done. And true to his promise, the monster returns for the fourth story, Conor's truth. And, as difficult as his truth is for Conor to speak, it will no doubt surprise you.
Patrick Ness has done something really different in A Monster Calls; in the parables, he has the monster tell them in such a way, that the characters aren't either good or bad, but a combination of both, just as what Conor is struggling with in his nightmare is a combination of grief and guilt.
A Monster Calls is one of the most honest books I have ever read. It is difficult to recognize Conor's pain, but it soon becomes obvious that no one, not even his mother, wants Conor to know how bad things are. What is really sad, is that the well-intentioned people around Conor are the ones who created the nightmare but not addressing his mother's illness honestly. Only his assertive grandmother is willing to address what will happen to him when his mother is gone (not a spoiler, it's clear from the start mom is dying). And it is the job of the monster to help Conor find and admit his truth, so that the business of healing can begin, allowing the story to end on a hopeful note.
A word about the exquisitely rendered illustrations by Jim Kay. They are as dark as any nightmare, yet if you look at the closely and carefully they reveal more that you might realize. If ever there were illustrations that perfectly supported the text and themes of a story, this is definitely it. Though they were digitally rendered, the final illustrations were sketched over and over again before they were done.
This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Candlewick Press
The yew tree/monster plays a big roll in A Monster Calls. A yew tree can live as long as 1,000 years and really are often found in church graveyards. If you would like to know something more about them, including their mythological connections, you can find information on the website of the Ancient Yew Organization
Now that the movie is out, I was tempted to include the trailer for it, but instead I decided to include the original book trailer, after all, that's what I reviewed here: