A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness
Not Your Average Pre-teen
Okay, to be fair, in some ways, Conor's totally typical for a junior-high boy: he's sarcastic, he feels ripped off because he's had to spend the last six years of his life without a dad, and he's not a big fan of either school or visiting his grandma.
But that's where the similarities between Conor and other pre-teens end. We know right off the bat—when we see him in the kitchen making his own breakfast and doing his own laundry.
He finished his cereal and toast […] then rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Still twenty minutes to go. He decided to empty the rubbish bin […] and took the bag out to the wheelie bin in front of the house. Since he was already making the trip, he gathered up the recycling and put that out, too. Then he got a load of sheets going in the washer that he'd hang out on the line when he got home from school. (2.18)
How many junior-high guys do you know who channel their inner Martha Stewart on a regular basis?
No, Conor's not harboring a secret desire to become a househusband when he grows up. He's taking care of himself because he has to. His mom has cancer, and she's always sick, so he's become both her caretaker and honorary maid. And you know what that means: this kid has had to grow up fast.
Oh, I Thought You Were the Scary One!
So it's no surprise, then, that Conor's also very brave. When the monster shows up at his window, the kid hardly bats an eye: "Shout all you want," he says, "I've seen worse" (1.52). Frankly, when it comes to the monster, it's pretty clear that Conor's got bigger fish to fry. All he wants is for his mom to get better, and this monster's not the one who's trying to take her, so what's the point in being afraid? Cancer's the one we should all be afraid of.
He may be a tough guy at first, our Conor, but he's got a secret: he's very, very scared of losing his mom to this terrible disease. And one way that scared people cope is by denying that the thing they fear exists in the first place. He's pretty invested in his denial, but you can't really blame the kid. After all his parents aren't helping matters: they keep telling him his mom's going to get better, even though they know she's not.
As he tells the monster, "I've known forever she wasn't going to make it, almost from the beginning. She said she was getting better because that's what I wanted to hear. And I believed her. Except I didn't" (30.6). See, sometimes parents think they're protecting their kids by lying to them, but in reality, they're often doing them even more damage. Prolonging sadness just makes it hurt more when you finally feel it. And while he may deny it until the very end of the book, Conor's smarter than he seems: he knows the truth, which is why he's so bent on denying it.
The Invisible Boy
Conor's got some major denial skills, but we can't forget to add invisibility to his bag of tricks. Only in this case, invisibility is not exactly a superpower. It's more like a heavy burden that Conor carries everywhere.
See, Conor's not actually invisible. Everyone just treats him like he is because they don't want to set him off. He's fragile. But the problem is, when everyone's worried about how you might react because your mom's got cancer, the easiest way to deal is just to ignore you altogether.
But here comes the irony: Conor's invisibility at school is just another reminder to Conor that his mom's not long for the world. He can't help but notice that folks are treating him differently, and because he's a smart kid, he knows why.
So the real question is, if everyone treats you like you're invisible, how can you make them see you? One possible answer: you generate a monster inside yourself to make doing the dirty work a little more bearable. It's easier to (a) deal with a dying parent and (b) lay the smack down on people you don't like if you invent an alter ego so it's not all on your shoulders. Which is exactly what our monster does for Conor.
When he throws some WWF-style moves on Harry, he thinks he's finally done something bad enough to be punished, which means being treated like everybody else, which means that at least something will the way it used to be: "He was going to be punished. It was finally going to happen. Everything was going to make sense again" (24.38). So when the headmistress says, "How could I do that and still call myself a teacher? With all that you're going through […]" (24.43), Conor's foiled again. He's doomed to keep living in his horrible world where denial and invisibility rule the day.
That is, until the monster teaches him a lesson.
I've Learned Something Today…
If Conor were a character on the cult classic Strangers With Candy (and we should all be so lucky), this would be the time when the after-school-special music starts playing and he tells us the important lesson he's learned.
See, by the end of the novel, Conor has come to understand that though the truth hurts, it also sets you free (how's that for a cliché bomb?). Conor may not want to let his mom go, but once he does, he'll be able to live a life that goes beyond denial and grief. And, best of all, he'll finally get a good night's sleep.
This heart wrenching quote says it all: "He faintly felt the huge hands of the monster pick him up, forming a little nest to hold him. He was only vaguely aware of the leaves and branches twisting around him, softening and widening to let him lie back" (30.18). Once Conor's finally found the courage to tell his truth, he can rest, because his journey to honesty was also a journey to peace.Conor's Timeline