You’ve probably heard of it. It’s getting stars in journals and a lot of love online. In fact, Heavy Medal wondered if it’d be eligible for the Newbery. It’s also got a moving, fascinating back story. It’s hinted at by the sentence on the cover (Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd), but the full story is here.
There’s a boy of 13. A mother dying of cancer. And a monster, in the back yard, telling stories.
It’s told economically, but phrases are full of unsaid things:
“All right, it wasn’t the wind. It was definitely a voice, but not one he recognized. It wasn’t his mother’s, that’s for sure. It wasn’t a woman’s voice at all, and he wondered for a crazy moment if his dad had somehow made a surprise trip from America and arrived too late to phone and –”
Conor’s methodical ruling out of possibilities for the mysterious voice that calls out his name at seven minutes past midnight escalates the tension into something genuinely eerie. His wild, almost-unspoken hope for his father to magically appear, Conor’s knowledge that it’s useless, “crazy,” all speak volumes about the limits on their relationship and the uneasy peace he’s made with the situation.
In conversation with his father:
“I’ll come back, though,” his father said. “You know, when I need to.” His voice brightened. “And you’ll visit us at Christmas! That’ll be good fun.”
“In your cramped house where there’s no room for me,” Conor said.
There are so many spaces in the father’s first sentence, so many unsaids that the reader and Conor are filling in: “…when I need to.” And Conor’s last sentence is so angry, throwing his father’s earlier description of life in the U.S. back at him, not allowing him to escape, but simultaneously not asking him to be more specific. The language might seem lean, but it’s really elegant.
It’s a cruel book without much relief. But it does have some hope. It has a lot of love. These are mixed in with pain, as they often are, in families, in life.
Ness uses strong imagery that does as much as the art to illuminate the characters, especially Conor, his mother, and his grandmother.
His grandmother is so tough, so take-charge, that when she falls apart, I felt like I was falling apart with her:
Her mouth closed, but it didn’t close into its usual hard shape. It trembled and shook, as if she was fighting back tears, as if she could barely hold the rest of her face together.
Grandmother is not the answer Conor wants, but she’s the only one he’s getting, and her unspoken, unacknowledged patience with him is totally moving.
His mother is exhausted, but her bond with Conor is evident despite her anger and pain. They are constantly making allowances for each other out of necessity and out of love; it’s such a generous relationship, but it’s also very delicate.
“You’re a good boy,” she said again. “I wish you didn’t have to be quite so good.”
He wipes the counter clean, he throws the trash away, he makes his own breakfast. She’s acknowledging that, but not saying that he’s going to have to prepare for something worse. All the characters exist in the dialogue and in the vast spaces of the words they don’t quite have the courage to say.
Conor is full of rage, a rage that no one is able to talk to him about — although all his teachers offer to have a talk with him “any time he needs it.” He almost never yells, he rarely acts out (although when he does, it’s satisfyingly explosive and incredibly powerful). He doesn’t mask his anger, but it’s unmentioned by the adults he knows who, like Conor, are helpless in a terrible situation. Every conversation is really delicately constructed; both parties are dancing around a terrible fact (“…when I need to”), but no one explicitly says it aloud, which allows Conor to stay in denial and stew in his anger.
Until the monster comes. The monster brings humor, violence, and release. As monsters do. The monster, a yew tree twisted and tortured into a man-shape, promises to tell three stories from when he walked before. And he commands Conor to tell his truth — his story — for the fourth.
The novel is brutal. But it’s got flashes of humor, and it can turn on a dime, from one to the other, in just a few neat sentences:
(“This is all sounding pretty fairy tale-ish,” Conor said, suspiciously.)
(You would not say that if you heard the screams of a man killed by a spear, said the monster. Or his cries of terror as he was torn to pieces by wolves. Now be quiet.)
The monster, like stories, is a wild thing, as ready to make trouble as he is to render some version of justice. Ness gives him mythological roots (Herne the Hunter/the Green Man) and the monster lives up to the reputation: beautiful, terrible, threatening, magical (“I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.“).
Conor’s school life is bleak. The three bullies, Harry, Anton, and Sully, are horrible, monstrous…and some days the only people who talk to Conor. They are very like the monster, actually. Terrible. Horrifying. But, as the monster points out, “you have worse things to be frightened of.” When Conor eventually beats Harry, it feels inevitable, terrible, horrifying, like a fairy tale. It’s so perfectly balanced because Conor has the nightmare, but also is the nightmare. Conor sees the monster but also is the monster. Conor is in an impossible situation and wishes for monstrous things. Recursive themes wind through the story, magnified and distorted by the fairy tale-like stories that the monster tells.
I’m at 1013 words, and I haven’t even touched the art yet! It is phenomenal. It’s all black ink and scratches, shadows and branches and spikes. It complements the text in such a curious way, mimicking the horror and tenderness that’s all mixed together. The monster is shadows, teeth, and evil grins, and yet is Conor’s only honest friend. Conor’s bossy, magnificent grandmother is never shown, but you see her dainty antique clock sketched lightly in just before Conor destroys it. And after her melt down, you just see the crack of light shining out from under her door; you’re forced to imagine her on the other side, holding herself together as the minutes tick by.
If I were at the table in Dallas, this is the book I’d be ready to defend as my top choice (well, so far). I think this is a top book of the year and has a really good chance of being in the Final Five. What do you think?
Pub details: Candlewick September 2011; reviewed from ARC.