The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming... The monster in his back garden, though, this monster is something different.
Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth.
Costa Award winner Patrick Ness spins a tale from the final idea of much-loved Carnegie Medal winner Siobhan Dowd, whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself. Darkly mischievous and painfully funny, A Monster Calls is an extraordinarily moving novel of coming to terms with loss from two of our finest writers for young adults.
Prue: What age was it aimed at? The kind of child who’d want to read about monster, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the serious content.
Judy: The issues can be handled by a teenager, but I couldn’t have given it to my 13-year-old.
Marion: My 11-year-old grand-daughter loved it.
Sandra: What it did really well was what couldn’t be talked about. And that’s what adults do – they won’t discuss what really matters. That’s the role of the monster, it forces him to deal with his anger and grief.
Maureen: The monster was part of the psychological story – externalising the anger he was experiencing. You have to rise above the pain.
Pauline: The bullying at school is very relevant to lots of children.
Sandra: Here it was about him almost being grateful for the punishment.
Barbara: Yes, he was trying to hang on to normality. If everything else around him was just falling apart, bullying was at least familiar.
Judy: It was also the fact that he had these few issues he had to deal with – it was all about him, him against the world. That’s where his guilt came from, wanting ‘it’ (his mother’s life) to come to an end. It says on the front cover that the book is a masterpiece, I’m inclined to agree.
Karin: The mother is protecting him from her illness. There are lots of early teen ‘carers’ who are forced to deal with serious issues.
Sandra: It was the father who really failed to step up to the mark.
Greta: He is so detached – the least developed character.
Barbara: He just refers to ‘after’ – it’s the elephant in the room.
Marion: The grandmother was really terrible, but then she came from a different generation.
Judy: Yes, and she had her defences up the whole time.
Barbara: She seemed to feel that the mother should have had the tricky conversation with him – to force him to accept what was happening.
Jean: It was interesting how she was portrayed – grandmothers are different these days.
Marion: Speaking as a grandparent, you have a completely different relationship with grandchildren, and they are parented differently today.
Prue: I felt it was rather clunky in the writing compared with A.D. Miller in Snowdrops. I think I’m the only person around this table who didn’t enjoy it. The themes were too heavy-handed, it was such a strong metaphor, there was no subtlety. Some professionals might feel a bit patronised.
Greta: I hear what you are saying, but the descriptions of defence mechanisms are well drawn and true.
Prue: I think each stage of the story is explained so much that nothing is left for the reader.
Pam: Yes, but if a child hadn’t actually experienced this situation, they would need that.
Greta: Saying the unsayable is very important though.
Sandra: It’s also about things that can’t even be thought about.
Jean: The word “die” or “dying” is never actually used in the book.
Judy: Reading it, I felt I was learning a lot about myself, how you handle traumatic events.
Greta: Perhaps it would be most helpful for parents to read first.
Sandra: You could recommend it to Macmillan nurses, teachers and carers.
Greta: There is a wide net of people involved in illness and the other social issues – lots of then would benefit from reading this book.
Val: What did everyone think of the illustrations?
Rosamund: Completely stunning, they add a huge amount to the storytelling.
Marion: To me it was about the complete and utter isolation, particularly with a child, you think you have to protect them, but they want to be treated as adults.
Judy: They don’t have the same emotional inhibitions.
Rosamund: We are now one step removed from death – it’s the real taboo.
Barbara: Unlike in Dickens’ time when death was always in the home.
ambiguity, uncertainty and corruption. Snowdrops. That’s what the Russians call them – the bodies that float up into the light in the thaw. Drunks, most of them, and homeless people who just give up and lie down into the whiteness, and murder victims hidden in the drifts by their killers.
Nick has a confession. When he worked as a high-flying British lawyer in Moscow, he was seduced by Masha, an enigmatic woman who led him through her city: the electric nightclubs and intimate dachas, the human kindnesses and state-wide corruption.
Yet as Nick fell for Masha, he found that he fell away from himself; he knew that she was dangerous, but life in Russia was addictive, and it was too easy to bury secrets – and corpses – in the winter snows...
Rosemary: Is it a thriller – well no, you know from the beginning that it ends badly, but it was packaged and marketed as a thriller. I loved the style.
Prue: It was so clever.
Marion: I didn’t like it.
Pauline: It was so obvious though, he walked into it deliberately.
Rosemary: As an accountant, I liked it – what you saw was what you got. A wildwest capitalist frontier. He is corrupted, making no attempt to stop the deal.
Prue: It brought Russia so much to life – so vivid.
Pauline: It did read a bit like a travelogue in some ways.
Pam: The environment was so corrupt, but the lyrical writing, his use of metaphor, was brilliant all the way through. It’s fascinating the way he brings the ugliness and beauty together.
Barbara: He knows Russia as an outsider, he sees it through eyes that might be ours.
Rosamund: He is very damning of his mother’s tourist eyes however, he’s gone native by then.
Sandra: I didn’t find him a believable character, I couldn’t believe he could behave like that. The descriptions were very good, though.
Prue: It’s a parallel – he was denying himself part of his life – he doesn’t want to see his part in the whole drama.
Karin: By writing the document to his future wife, he’s seeking resolution and giving her a chance to change her mind, and seeking absolution.
Sandra: It has no emotional punch, he has no remorse.
Barbara: I wondered if he was going to end up as another snowdrop.
Greta: How do you remain uncorrupted in an environment where everyone is corrupt.
Prue: He was knowingly naive.
Judy: I had a struggle getting through it – it left me as cold as Moscow – he didn’t have one kind thing to say.
Karin: He’s writing this account with hindsight.
Rhona: I know Belarus slightly – it reminded me of that environment – you could see how someone could be sucked in.
Maureen: I thought it was all based on the shift from Communism to the supposedly more democratic country, there was so much corruption. The majority of the people live in poverty.
Pam: There is that storyline running through of survival, what a girl might have to do to survive.
Karin: Yes, it’s not necessarily selfish, it can just be that, survival.
Judy: I was waiting for some substance, where was the twist?
Prue: Perhaps that’s why I liked it, more subtle, I didn’t need the punch. I think he just loved Russia, he wanted to be part of it.
The Book Group meets at The Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells. If you are interested in joining, please contact Rosamund on firstname.lastname@example.org or see the website for details www.mainstreetbooks.co.uk.
The next meeting is at 11am on June 25. They are reading The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham and The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home.