A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
We'll be the first to admit it: "quirky" is an adjective that can be borderline insulting at times. If you're a girl who wears your makeup like David Bowie or a guy who dresses like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, you've probably been told you're quirky in a way that's more than a little patronizing. It might sound dismissive of your sincere attempts to express yourself, and you probably want to smack anyone who says it.
But we mean it with love here.
A Monster Calls defies your emotional expectations at every turn. For example, when the monster tells Conor he'll tell three stories, and Conor says telling stories is a lame thing for a monster to do, the monster says, "Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase and bite and hunt" (5.53). Just as you're thinking how profound and beautiful that is, Conor says, "That's what teachers always say. No one believes them either" (5.54). Way to rain on the monster's parade, buddy.
Conor's a bit cynical, here, which is certainly part of the tone as well. We expect him to be enchanted by fairy tales, because fairy tales are enchanting, but nope. Not so much. And that's what makes the book charming—the fact that it surprises us at every turn.
Charm in a Book on Cancer?
That's right, we said it: a book about cancer can occasionally be charming, even funny. Sure, there are plenty of moments when you'll get weepy and want to hug the nearest fluffy creature; if you don't have a puppy, kitten, or baby bunny, we'd like to take this opportunity to suggest you go get one before you start reading. But there are also a few moments where you may actually laugh out loud.
Allow us to present one: Conor tells the monster he's not real. The monster counters with, "Oh? Did you dream the berries on the floor of your room?" (7.28) To which Conor replies, "Who cares even if I didn't?! They're just stupid berries. Woo-hoo, so scary. Oh, please, please, save me from the berries!" (7.29).
In a book about death, you've got to have some laughter and light. Sure, cancer is horrifically sad, but like the monster tells Conor, people can think (and thus be) two things at once. Just because your mom is dying doesn't mean you have to be humorless every second of the day. Cracking a joke doesn't mean you love her any less.