It took me three-quarters of the way through A Monster Calls before I began to appreciate it. Throughout much of the book I was repelled by the protagonist’s unlikability, and his bottomless anger at everything and everyone in his life. But then my view changed.
The main character is a boy named Conor. His mother is sick with cancer, he rarely sees his father who lives in another country, and his mother’s mother is cold to him. Conor is plagued by an unspeakable dream every night that terrifies him. By day he is tormented by bullies. He feels isolated and angry at school personnel who seem to pity him because of his mother’s illness.
One night, a large Yew tree outside his window turns into a gigantic monster made of the tree’s twisted branches and roots. The monster begins visiting Conor at night and eggs him on to lash out at the world. Conor begins to hurt and destroy people and things around him. He destroys his grandmother’s sitting room. At school he brutally beats his bully. The monster encourages his rage and even helps him rip everything apart.
For most of the book I felt a curious lack of empathy for Conor. He seemed like an unpleasant brat, angrily pushing everyone away except his mother. He didn’t seem to see that others were suffering as well. I understood the impact his mother’s illness was having on his behavior, yet I didn’t cut him any slack. I also found the writing annoying. It felt simplistic and heavy-handed. The dialogue sounded forced. The book reminded me of the overwrought first drafts I wrote as an MFA student.
Given all this, I was surprised to find myself deeply connecting to the last part of the book. As Conor’s mother gets sicker, and Conor’s grief begins to subsume him, I could feel myself starting to grieve alongside him. The Yew tree monster began to seem less terrifying. Through the monster, Conor begins to open up all that he’s kept hidden.
By the very end of the book, I was crying so much I hyperventilated. As Conor begins to acknowledge his pain, guilt, and grief, I felt something deep inside me rise up. In another review I wrote of the book The End from A Series of Unfortunate Events, I talked a bit about my brother, who took his life when he was 18 years old. It’s the defining event of my life. It is the thing I carry.
When I examined my response to this book, I saw that my own history was affecting how I experienced the story. Thinking on it now, my impatience and annoyance with Conor’s destructive anger was connected to my own anger and guilt about my brother’s death. But as the book goes on, and Conor’s defenses begin to fall apart, I could feel the truth of his grief. I could finally connect to the character and see him with more compassion, a compassion I rarely have shown to myself. So the story got tangled up in my past. In the end I was crying cathartically, with an understanding of how unbearably painful it is to let someone go. A Monster Calls is a searing look at grief, and I highly recommend it for those who have lost someone. Which is all of us.
Finally, the illustrations are amazing in this book. They fit with the mood of the story so well I can’t imagine anyone reading A Monster Calls without them.