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.
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.
Wait a minute—how the heck can something be both magical and real? After all, it's not like that stuff David Blaine does could actually happen, right? Right?
So let us put it in literary terms for those of you who have never read any Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Italo Calvino: magical realism refers to literature that's set in the real world but sprinkled with bits of fantasy. What with the monster only Conor can see and the way it conjures up other worlds in his backyard, we'd say A Monster Calls fits the bill nicely.
It's an ingenious genre for a cancer story, because it keeps the story from becoming a straight-up tale of woe and misery and death and all that awful jazz. The monster's appearances and tales break up the scenes of Conor's dismal life, giving the reader something magical to hang onto in the midst of the realism—get it?
The main character is 13 years old, and he's dealing with teenage problems like bullying and his parents' divorce. The book won the Carnegie Medal, which is England's version of the Newbery. Pretty cut-and-dried, right? This book's straight up YA.
But A Monster Calls is just as much for adults as kids; maybe even more so in some ways. While teenagers may never have experienced the death of someone they're close to, especially a parent, most adults have. There's no question that the book is far more profound and poignant if you've been through that kind of loss. Plus, who doesn't love a beautifully told story with haunting illustrations?
Really, A Monster Calls is a book for all ages.
Not to be Captain Obvious or anything, but the book opens with a monster coming to call on Conor. Boom. Title explained.
Ah, but not so fast. Another monster's been calling all along, if only through his subconscious. And that monster is death—the pit monster. So we've got the relatively friendly yew tree monster, and the creepy, scary pit monster, duking it out for the honor of who's named in the title.
None of the characters in the book ever speak the title, nor does the narrator, but we know that both these two monsters call before the book ends. After all, good monsters and bad monsters call on all of us. And it's up to us to figure out whether or not to answer.
Oh, 12:07, you break our hearts.
We don't see the actual moment of Conor's mother's death, as if Ness wants to let Conor be alone with her. But we know what's coming, because he's set it up all through the book. Before Conor falls asleep in the monster's nest, he wants to ask why the monster always comes at 12:07, but he crashes before he can. The moment fits right in with the understated nature of the rest of the book. Part of its strength is that it never insults the reader's intelligence. Ness knows what he needs to tell us and what he doesn't.
As the clock creeps toward 12:07 on the last night of Conor's mother's life, Ness writes, "He knew it would come […] the moment she would slip from his grasp, no matter how tightly he held on" (32:48). Conor's nightmare becomes literal—he knows death will claim her, but he gets to keep holding her hand.
The last line of the book is, "And by doing so [holding her hand], he could finally let her go." It's the final paradox—the monster will pull her under, but Conor will still be hanging on. He'll stay on earth even as his mother leaves, still clutching her hand even as she slips from his grasp.
If you've got a yew tree in a graveyard outside an old stone church, chances are good your story's going to be set in the U.K, which is chock full of old cemeteries, yew trees, and things that go bump in the night. This kind of church and cemetery are more prevalent in England than they are in America. Take a look at this for an idea of what we're talking about. All cemeteries, all yew trees, all U.K., all the time.
There's an old saying, "Write what you know," and that's what Ness is doing here. He's an American expat in England, and chances are he's seen one or two (or seventeen) of these cemeteries. So why not put one behind Conor's house? After all, it's an easy way to work that yew tree into the story, with all its connotations of health, healing, and yes, death.
Smaller settings within the larger one include Conor's school and house, his grandmother's house, and his mother's hospital room. In every room, he (and the reader) is aware of the clocks; we need to know when the monster's going to show up. Everything's changing in Conor's life, right down to his dad's accent ("'Hey, son,' his dad said, his voice bending in that weird way that America had started to shape it" [12.37].)
That change is shown in constant contrasts, like the one between Conor's grandma's house and his own. He thinks the monster may not even come to visit there, because it can't: "Maybe it didn't know where his grandma lived. Or maybe it was just too far to come. She didn't have much of a yard anyway […] no room for a tree at all. It didn't even have grass" (12.2). One minute the monster's there, and one minute it's not, depending on Conor's location.
The toughest thing about reading A Monster Calls is seeing the words through the tears in your eyes. Seriously, this one will make you sob—maybe not right up front, but by the last page, we'd be willing to bet you'll be a mess.
As for the story itself, it's so fast-paced and gripping it might very well keep you up all night—or maybe half the night, since it's just over 200 pages long, and much of that is illustration. We're betting you'll want to read it all in one go.
A Monster Calls grabs you from the first page and doesn't let go until the end. How can you not keep reading after this:
He'd had a nightmare. Well, not a nightmare. The nightmare. The one he'd been having a lot lately. The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. (1.3)
It's the stuff of horror and mystery, and you want to find out what's causing the darkness and screaming just like you want to watch the end of The Exorcist. In this case, though, you probably won't need to peek out from under a blanket.
But Ness takes us out of Conor's concrete reality and into the world of magic right away when the monster shows up at his window and starts roaring at him. Didn't this kid just wake up from his nightmare? The reader is never sure just what plot twist is coming next; which world we're about to visit.
A Monster Calls is a short book, so Ness doesn't have time to go off on tangents. He keeps us in the action, steadily going back and forth between reality (Conor's issues at school and with his family) and alternate reality (the monster conjuring worlds in Conor's backyard.) The story is quick to read and easy to follow because of the fast-paced narrative.
If you don't know what a yew tree looks like, imagine the most Goth-looking Christmas tree ever. It has gnarled bark, a short trunk, and needles and berries instead of big flat leaves. Its branches spread wide like a weeping willow. In other words, it's a perfect tree to plant in your cemetery, and a perfect tree to turn into a monster.
But yew trees are more than just spooky in A Monster Calls. For one thing, they've got some major healing powers, as they're used to make the chemo drug Conor's mom's doctors prescribe in a last-ditch effort to save her life. Too bad the yew tree drug doesn't work. Conor's just as disappointed as we are, as evidenced by his kicking the tree after he visits his mom and yelling, "'What's the use of you if you can't heal her? Just stupid stories and getting me into trouble and everyone looking at me like I've got a disease—'" (27.27).
Conor's got a point. Every time Conor thinks the monster's on his side, it does something else to get him in trouble, like wrecking his grandma's living room and beating up Harry. So maybe all those healing powers the yew tree is supposed to possess are nothing but a load of bullpucky.
True to the constant plot twists of A Monster Calls, the yew tree is Conor's shelter the night his mother dies. The tree may not heal his mother, but it heals Conor, or at least helps start him down his own road to healing (thanks to a healthy dose of Facing the Truth). If there were a moral to this story, and if the yew tree's significance could be summed up in a song lyric, it would totally be by the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want / But if you try sometimes / You just might find you get what you need."
A Monster Calls is chock-full of clocks. Whenever Conor has his nightmare, there's one nearby, and it always reads 12:07. Let's take an inventory. There's:
They're all there for the purpose of summoning the monster, but they're also a reminder of time ticking away—and all too fast for Conor's taste.
Of course, the most important clock in the book comes at the very end, when Conor realizes he has only 21 minutes until his mother's death:
As the monster's hands gently but firmly guided him toward his mum, Conor saw the clock on the wall above her bed. Somehow, it was already 11:46 p.m. (20.32)
Time is finally running out, which is made all the more profound by the fact that we've been seeing clocks all along. 12:07 is one of the few things Conor's always been able to count on, even if its association with the dream is awful.
At the very end—both of the book and of his mother's life—Ness writes, "He knew it would come, and soon, maybe even this 12:07. The moment she would slip from his grasp, no matter how tightly he held on." We as the reader learn on the very last page, finally (though we suspected it earlier), the significance of the number. It may be when Conor's mom's life ends, but we have a feeling it will also be when the nightmare ends for good.
It's worth noting, too, that 12:07 comes just after the beginning of a new day. When Conor loses his mom, it's the beginning of a new life. Not only will he live in a different place physically, he'll live in a different place emotionally. It may be just as hard for the kids at school to accept that Conor's the kid with the dead mom as it was for them to accept that he was the kid with the cancer mom, but eventually he'll just be Conor again. A life in which he's no longer invisible is a new life indeed.
Here it is, ladies and gents: the big fat elephant in the room. The C-word. The ultimate monster.
Not only is cancer a plot device (we're all waiting for the dreadful moment when it kills Conor's mom), it's also a metaphor for change and loss—which Conor experiences in droves. In the scene in which Conor's grandma tells him he's got a home with her and Conor tells her he won't need one, she says, "She'll seem better tomorrow, but she won't be, Conor" (6.38). We see change and loss in two ways here: not only is Conor's life changing dramatically, his mom's condition changes from day to day. He never knows if today will be the day he loses her or not. Cancer is, in effect, jerking them all around.
The pit monster could be seen as cancer in creature form. Ness describes it as, "[…] the real nightmare monster, formed of cloud and ash and dark flames, but with real muscle, real strength, real red eyes that glared back and him and flashing teeth that would eat his mother alive" (28.42). When Conor tries and fails to pull his mom from the pit monster's grasp, he sees that cancer is more powerful than any human being. You can only hang on for so long before you're forced to deal with the loss that's staring you right in the face.
As his mom gets sicker, Conor's peers begin to bully and ostracize him: "When Conor started having that nightmare, that's when Harry noticed him, like a secret mark had been placed on him that only Harry could see" (3.8). Harry pays special attention to Conor for a while, hitting him and tripping him, but Conor's teachers start handling him with kid gloves, then ignoring him altogether: "Conor hadn't heard a word of his lessons in school, but the teachers hadn't told him off for his inattentiveness, skipping over him when they asked questions to the class" (18.33).
All this special treatment is a constant reminder to Conor that his mom is sick. This kid just can't catch a break, even at school when things should be normal. He's losing his mom, and he's lost his best friend Lily, because she's the one who told everyone about the cancer: "And then everyone knew. Everyone. Which changed the whole world in a single day" (4.36). The day he lost Lily was the day everything truly changed, but it didn't prepare him for the change and loss of losing his mom. It didn't prepare him for the constant changes of drugs that failed, staying with his grandma more and more often, and the varying day-to-day degrees of his mother's steadily worsening sickness.
Although the story is told in the third person, we see everything happen through Conor's eyes in A Monster Calls. Even when Conor and the monster are one, we're getting Conor's side of the story. For example, when Conor beats up Harry in the lunchroom, and the narrator says, "Then the monster leapt forward to make Harry see," (23.46) we know it's really Conor doing the leaping.
Why? Because nobody else sees the monster, as we learn at the beginning of the next chapter when the headmistress tells him, "I'm not even sure how one boy could have caused so much damage by himself" (24.8).
If this were written in the first person, though, that mystery would be solved, right quick. Conor would tell us straight up what's going down. Keeping the book in the third person keeps us at a proper distance, and allows us the ability to both experience the story along with Conor as well as to stay far enough away from his pain to give us some much needed perspective.
It's 12:07 a.m. Conor wakes from his nightmare, the one he has every night, and hears someone calling his name. When he looks outside, he sees that the yew tree near his house has turned into a monster. The monster comes to Conor's window and does a bunch of monstery stuff, like growling and yelling, but Conor's not impressed. After all, it's not the monster he was expecting. Ness is setting up the basis for the story here: we have the time of the dream, the partial content of the dream, and the arrival of the first monster, all of which will become key elements in the book.
The biggest conflict in Conor's life, by far, is the fact that his mom is dying of cancer. She's had round after round of chemo, but none of them have worked. The sicker she gets, the more the kids at school either bully him or ignore him. On top of that, he has to go stay with his grandma when his mom goes into the hospital, and he's not a fan of the old lady at all. Life doesn't get much more complicated than that.
The deal the monster made with Conor is this: he'll tell Conor three stories on successive nights, after which Conor has to tell the monster about his nightmare. Sure enough, after the monster's told the stories, Conor is forced to face the monster he's actually afraid of: the one that pulls his mother off a cliff in his recurring dream.
He tries to save her, but the pit monster is too strong. Losing his grip on his mother is a pretty big crisis, the one Conor believes leads to her death. Once he's told the monster the truth, Conor finally admits that he had to let his mother go because he was so exhausted, and the monster allows Conor to fall asleep in its branches. He no longer has to remain vigilant against his nightmare, so he can get some peaceful Zs.
By the time Conor's grandmother finds him asleep in the roots of the tree—which is now just a tree again—his mother is almost gone. Grandma hustles Conor into her car and takes him to the hospital, where we see that his mother's death is inevitable. The thing everybody's been denying is finally about to happen, and they're all ready to end the pain, even though of course it's awful.
Conor takes his mother's hand for the last time, and she wakes up just long enough to tell him it's okay to be angry. The monster comes into the room and reminds Conor to speak the truth, so he tells his mother he doesn't want to let her go. She closes her eyes with a few minutes left before 12:07, at which point we finally know how the story ends: she's not going to get better, she's going to pass away. Even though we don't get to see the actual moment of her death, we know it'll go down at seven minutes after twelve.