I had heard a lot about this book before ever picking it up. I think the first time I ever read anything about it was over at Nymeth’s site, when she reviewed it and related how devastating and beautiful a read it was for her. I was instantly intrigued, because, lets face it, she knows a thing or two about great books! When I had the chance to grab this book at SIBA, I was all over it and knew no matter what else I had planned to read, this one was going to be on the top of my list. What I found was a book that was like no other I had read before, where sorrow was the neighbor of indescribable fear and where loyalty and love can divide itself into something tragic and heartbreaking.
Conor has a lot going on emotionally, and seemed, for most of the book, to be a little numb. His mother is very ill and no one will tell him the truth of what lies ahead. His father is in and out of his life and is shamelessly inconsistent in his son’s time of need. For some reason Conor feels the need to be punished for the terrible dreams he’s been having, dreams he cannot share with anyone else. It was hard to read about such a boy as this. Hard to see him act and react to a danger he’s not sure of and a future he’s unwilling to embrace. On the surface, Conor may seem resigned, but as the book peddles further and further, it becomes clear there’s a storm in this boy just waiting to break loose and destroy everything around him. His fears, anger and uncertainty begin to amass in his mind into a terrible guilt that nothing can assuage, and as he becomes more deeply embroiled in all the terrible feelings that surround him, an unlikely monster surfaces to both frighten and enlighten him. But it’s not this particular monster that holds any power for Conor, and soon the two are in the throes of a very unusual relationship.
This monster that begins to visit Conor is indeed terrifying and dark, and though he tries to frighten the young boy, Conor isn’t having any of that. Soon the monster begins to tell tales, but these are tales unlike any you’ve ever heard before. The lines between good and evil intermingle in these stories and nothing is as it should be. The stories and their outcomes are tremendously frustrating for Conor, and sometimes were frustrating for me as well. Nothing was as it seemed, and there were so many shades of grey in the ambiguity of the tales that I was bothered and confused. This is where the book excels, because while the monster shares his stories in the narrative, a whole other element of storytelling is going on with the black and white illustrations, which are wild and dark in and of themselves. There’s a haunting and very real menace in both the words and the pictures of this story.
When the monster reaches the end of his tales, it’s finally Conor’s turn to share the story that has been internally savaging him, and its conclusion was so painful and tragic I couldn’t help but be moved to tears. Here at last was the monster that had been terrifying the boy who could not cry. Here, finally, was the shocking and haunting truth that could not be denied. When it’s finally out in the open though, the monster doesn’t seem to lose its menace and it takes all the power the boy has to tame it into submission. Ness explores all this beautifully and with a measure of pain that cannot be denied or avoided. Reading the story of Conor’s monsters caused me to both despair and hope, to an equally incredible capacity. It was a story that was alive and pregnant with meaning and portent, and I was equally relieved and grieving when I turned the last page.
This was a relatively short book that will take readers no time at all to finish, though I would advise paying close attention to the illustrations, for they’re not only beautiful but they make their own statements about the story and its characters. Though it’s a sad and disturbing tale, it’s remarkably important and teaches a humbly resonant lesson on what it means both to grieve and to live through the terror that can take an unwitting hold in our lives. Very highly recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.