The painfully witty elevator pitch for Pornokitsch is something about finding genre fiction that we can share with our mothers. That is, the search for books that contain the imaginative weirdness that we enjoy, but come wrapped up in enough gravitas and obvious depth to be taken seriously by our dracophobic anti-robot parental units. (This is a pretty good variant of the “would you read it on a train?” test of cover art.)
Anecdotally, A Monster Calls passes the mother test with flying colours. This is a book we’ve both recommended to our mothers. In fact, it is a book that many of our friends have recommended to their mothers. Were I to hazard a guess, this is the most commercially successful of all the books on the Red Tentacle shortlist. A lot of readers have given it to a lot of mothers. And fathers. And brothers and sisters and friends and so on and so forth...
What is it about A Monster Calls that makes it so successful – so shareable?
I think there are two answers. The first, of course, is A Monster Calls’ sheer emotional impact. Patrick Ness builds on an idea from Siobhan Dowd and tells the heartbreaking story of Conor and his mother; an ordinary schoolboy and a vivacious woman that’s slowly being devoured by cancer. Anne’s review from October covers this dimension of A Monster Calls already, so I won’t go into it here. Needless to say, A Monster Calls is overwhelming and I suspect a great part of its appeal is the desire to share the emotions that it prompts. As a reader, it is easier and less risky to pass the book along physically than to try and express what the text engenders.
The second answer to A Monster Calls’ appeal is its simplicity. This is not a complicated book. It contains neither intricate family trees nor lavish secondary worlds. The language is clear and direct, as befits its (ostensibly) young adult audience. Conor’s tiny universe is filled with streamlined, immediately recognisable figures. The young best friend (with a possible crush), the teacher’s pet (and closet bully), the distant father, the remote grandmother and, of course, his mother.
It is populated with archetypes in the purest sense: tersely described and immediately understood, with the readers filling in most of the detail. The core fantastical conceit – a lumbering tree monster – is not hard to grasp. Compared to the layers upon layers upon layers that are on display in the other books on this shortlist, A Monster Calls is a fundamentally different sort of beast.
The simplicity is captivating because it makes the book more, not less, potent. Conor has the same epiphany on his own journey. Initially terrified of the monster qua monster, he’s underwhelmed when he learns the practical aspects of the beast’s menace.
"Conor blinked. Then blinked again. 'You’re going to tell me stories.'
Indeed, the monster said.
'Well -' Conor looked around in disbelief. 'How is that a nightmare?'
Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt." (45)
The monster’s curious folklore about witches, princes and apothecaries seems like the most ludicrous non sequitur. Conor’s mum is dying and he’s being dragged out into dewy fields to discuss fairytales. But the monster’s cryptic parables soon have their effect. Conor first gets absorbed into the stories. Then, reluctantly, he begins to overlay their protagonist’s conflicts on top of his own. Conor is overtly angered by the obvious irrelevance of the monster’s tales, but secretly embraces the distraction. When he realises that they’re not the path to escape– in fact, they’re chasing and biting him back towards the truth – he feels betrayed.
The stories in A Monster Calls are little more than wolves, relentlessly pursuing Conor and nipping at his heels. While the world around him tries to ignore Conor’s plight or – worse yet – assault it head on, only the monster drives Conor to acknowledge and accept the truth.
A Monster Calls is no different from the stories it contains. It is a solitary (beautiful, perfectly-executed) wolf. Although it is not complex, it is resonant – Conor’s life becomes our fairytale, a complication situation distilled to the bare minimum in order to foster near-universal relevance. Stripped of complications, we can provide our own detail – our own empathetic understanding of how Conor must feel and how his conflict is reflective of our own. By giving a copy of A Monster Calls, we become advocates of the power of stories. We spread Conor’s tale in the hopes that the each recipient takes something personal of their own away from it. When reading A Monster Calls, we are Conor. By sharing it, we become monsters.
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.