Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A Monster Calls

OK, I'm a little late on this one; it won the Carnegie last year.  But better late than never, particularly with a book as darkly beautiful and profound as this one.

Written by Patrick Ness (quickly becoming the name in YA literature, particularly for boys), but based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls tells the story of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, whose relationship with his grandmother is fraught, whose father has a new family on the other side of the Atlantic: a boy who is being bullied at school, and who has horrific nightmares that destroy the only supposed peaceful time he should have.  So far, so cheery.  Into this mess comes a Monster, a force of nature who arrives one night armed with three stories.

"Stories are wild creatures," the Monster said. "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"

They are fairy-style tales ('long ago...a wicked witch...')  but they do not end the way our hero, Conor, expects them to.  In fact, they infuriate him.  They expose injustice.  They tell us that not all stories have happy endings - the Monster is forewarning us about the very book we are reading.  They tell us that people are complicated, that right and wrong, good and evil, are never straightforward concepts.

Then the Monster wants something in return.  He wants a story from Conor.  But not just any story: he wants the story of Conor's recurring nightmare.  For buried inside this nightmare is a painful Truth, and before he can begin to come to terms with his mother's inevitable death, Conor must face this Truth.  He must speak it aloud.

There is an element of Fight Club to this book, most noteably in the scene where the Monster beats up the school bully, and intelligent young readers will quickly pick up on what is really happening here.

But what truly brings this book to life are the extraordinary illustrations by Jim Kay, and I urge you to buy the version that contains them - I can't imagine why they have even bothered to publish it without them, but mine is not to reason why.

How's this for a visual representation of the fear of losing your mother?

The pictures, which often take up double pages, curl tendrils into the text and literally weave themselves around the words.  They are terrifying, comforting, astonishing... beautiful.

One word of warning though - for the last quarter of the book, you will need tissues!

The Childhood of Jesus

I'd never read a Coetzee - no, not even Disgrace - though I am very aware of the esteem in which he is held.  When I came across The Childhood of Jesus, I had heard nothing about it, but was drawn by both the cover, a rather threatening Edwardian photo (if that isn't an oxymoron) of a young woman and two young men with a vicious looking dog - it indicated E M Forster gone bad, transposed to the East End, adapted for the screen by Guy Ritchie - and the title, which is, having now read the book, even more intriguing.  Is the story a parable?  How is one supposed to interpret the action in the light of the title?  For there is no Jesus in the story.  There is a little boy, yes, a strange and unique little boy (or is he?  We are told he is by the adults who look after him, but other than the way he reacts to school life I'm not sure that he ever does actually come across as 'special' any more than in the sense that all parents think their own child is special).  Anyway, the title adds another layer of philosophical discourse to the novel, as though there weren't already enough within the story itself.

It is a tale without time or place - by which I mean it is outside time or place - and appears to be a step in the journey through existence;  I say existence rather than life because there is the possibility that Novilla is in some way an afterlife.  A man and boy - unrelated though travelling together, and each with a name they have recently been given - arrive on a bland, emotionless island that seems trapped in its own futility.  There is no progress here, on any terms, whether industry, relationship, thought... The pair are looking for the boy's mother, and eventually find a woman willing to take on the role.

I enjoyed The Childhood of Jesus, very much.  I must have been in the right frame of mind for it, because it is not the type of book I would normally read.  But it is written in a very precise style, sparing, consciously leaving gaps for questions, which fits perfectly with the subject matter itself.  The scene where they find La Residencia is overwelmingly reminiscent of Le Grand Meaulnes, and is almost a dreamlike sequence in the heart of a prosaic world.

Does the book have a circular narrative?  It ends with our main characters heading off to find and begin a new life.  But isn't that the way it starts, as well?

Really, my only criticism is technical.  There is a certain confused use of the pronoun 'he', whereby I was not always sure which 'he' in the room was being referred to.  This may have been another conscious device on Coetzee's part, or it may have been bad editing, but having had exactly this issue with Wolf Hall, I'm tempted to say it is an onrunning problem with Booker Prize winners who write in present tense...

This isn't one for those looking for a nice, simple story - this is a book for those who want an enjoyable challenge, who want their minds to be pushed a little further than the average novel can take them.  However, it is quite short, it is surprisingly easy to follow, and, although it leaves you with a great many questions (and would therefore be good for book groups, but would need a structured discussion format), is actually a very satisfying read.