A monster calls – Book Review

My mother passed away last year in a short month from an incurable disease that just stole her away. When I heard that the “A monster calls” movie came out, I wanted to go and see it but all my friends stopped me saying that the time is not right yet and the wound is too fresh. So I decided to wait a little and read the illustrated book instead.

I was never so right in a purchase and it made me cry still as I could see myself in the little boy and my mother in his. 

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.

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?

As I was reading the book I was trying to figure out who the monster was. Was it cancer? Was it the terrible thing that would take Conor’s mother away? But the Yew tree that he seems to come from only has healing properties, so the monster, even though his fruits are poisonous, is a good guy.

“There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.”

Conor’s life has only a limited number of main characters. His mom, his dad who lives in America with his new family and his grandma.
His dad shows up after being called by his mom and he’s a bit aloof, keeps calling his son champ, buddy and other names instead of son. Probably because he no longer thinks of his son as Conor as his own. New family takes precedence. And his new wife calls him expecting him back ASAP because their baby has a fever, leaving Conor and his dying mom alone again.

Conor’s grandma is a whirlwind of a woman. Brisk and determined, sometimes appearing cold. But she’s always by her daughter’s side when she’s feeling sick and even though she does not know how to work together with Conor, it will be just the two of them soon. I loved it when Conor / the monster / cause some destruction in her pristine living room and she comes back home to find everything broken by rage. She screams and instead of scolding Conor, she takes it upon herself to bring down the last standing cabinet, saying that she was feeling rage too at the impossibility to save her daughter and Conor’s mom from the grips of death.

But even in his anger and pain, Conor’s defiant spirit shows flashes of dry humor and painful hopefulness that are difficult to witness, but make him impossibly endearing.

A Monster Calls is a middle grade children’s book, but it’s a children’s book in the way that Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein wrote children’s books–that is, the surface stories are certainly well-written and compelling, but underneath that are the themes of confusion and loneliness and sadness that elevate them to timeless works of literature. And while A Monster Calls chooses to confront its demons more literally than some other books may, it does so with such fierce intelligence and ease that it never feels didactic or forced.

“Because humans are complicated beasts, the monster said. How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour? How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking? How can a parson be wrong-thinking but good-hearted? How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?

“I don’t know,” Connor shrugged, exhausted. “Your stories never made any sense to me.”

The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day. You wanted her to go at the same time you were desperate for me to save her. Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.”

…the fire in Conor’s chest suddenly blazed, suddenly burned like it would eat him alive. It was the truth, he knew it was. A moan started in his throat, a moan that rose into a cry and then a loud wordless yell and he opened his mouth and the fire came blazing out to consume everything, bursting over the blackness, over the yew tree, too, setting it ablaze along with the rest of the world…

This an incredible book about the enormous burdens of responsibility and grief and loss. I read most of it with anxiety in my heart and as the story intensified, the ache in my throat got worse and worse. By the time I reached the end, hot tears were dripping onto the last two pages, and continued to fall as I immediately read those pages again, and as I read them yet again.

But more than anything else, I felt a great deal of love as I was reading this. Love for Conor, love for his mum, love for his grandma, and love for everyone who has ever experienced a profound loss. This is such a beautiful book, such an important book, and one that I think so many children and so many adults will appreciate. I cannot imagine that there will be another children’s book written this year that will provide such a moving and emotionally truthful experience, or one that will so easily become an instant classic. In just 215 pages, A Monster Calls shatters your heart and then wraps it up tightly again so that you can go and be present in the world as an infinitely wiser, more loving human being.

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