Thirteen year old Conor has been having nightmares. 12:07 on the dot. Wide awake, trying not to scream, wishing he had someone to talk to. He’s been alone since everyone found out his mom has cancer. The kids at school figured out that the best way to deal with their own unease is to ignore him. The bullies know he won’t fight back or tattle, so he spends his school time invisible and bloodied. His only friend betrayed him and he can’t look at her without feeling angry, and he doesn’t want to feel anger because that reminds him of the dreams. Reminds him of the monster.
But then a different monster appears. Huge, reaching branches. Roots that could crush his house in a moment. A gaping maw that can swallow him whole.
But he doesn’t care. He’s not even afraid.
This isn’t the real monster. It’s not his monster.
But why is it here and why does it insist that Conor has a story to tell?
This book is beautiful, and that’s before the illustrations. Siobhan Dowd began to create this book but died before she could start. Patrick Ness, who never met her, was asked to complete her work. Wisely, he realized he couldn’t tell her story in her voice. What he could do was take her ideas in, let them grow, and tell a different story to honor her characters. It’s not Dowd’s story, but it is her reflection. Jim Kay finishes the tribute with black ink and textures to capture Conor’s fear and hope along with his helplessness and isolation. It’s painful and perfect and I had to keep putting the book down to scrub away the tears that were running back into my ears and into my pillow. The hazards of reading in bed.
There is so much to like about this book. My favorite genre is folklore and retold tales, and Ness pulls from the Green Man legend to create a character that is made of shades of gray. There are stories within the stories and Conor, and you, aren’t sure who the bad guy is. What enemy are you supposed to be paying attention to? What do you hold on to and what wishes to you make when nothing makes sense? Maybe the new monster is actually black and white with nothing in between.
The most powerful thing about this book was the idea of grief as permission. Conor and his mother refuse to let her cancer take them down, but things are getting worse. She’s fighting and she’s pulled through before. But what if… What happens if you finish that sentence? If you admit that bad things can happen, are you letting them in the door? If Conor allows himself to feel fear, does that mean he’s giving up on her? If you grieve for something that’s in process, does that mean you’re admitting that it’s over and you no longer trust your mother to live?
Did I mention I had to keep putting the book down to deal with the tears? Have you ever gotten to that point where you’re not actively sobbing anymore but tears continue rolling down your face? And then you think you’ve pulled yourself together so you can keep going and you take a deep breath to steady yourself and you hear your breath catch and skip and you realize you’re not done crying but you’ve got to finish this book because who is the monster and what is going to happen to Conor’s mom?
It hurt so much because the story and words were so true. Kay’s artwork is a perfect match to the fear and overwhelming helplessness that Conor feels. When you’re thirteen, you have moments where you already feel minuscule and when you add cancer to the mix, you might as well disappear. Kay pulls these feelings in and his pictures capture those moments where you’ve trapped all of your emotions into a tight ball into the center of your chest, but you know at any moment it’s going to explode. He smears blackness across the pages and it is a perfect companion to Ness’ story and Dowd’s beginning.
I highly recommend this book, but you probably don’t want to read it in public. So much sniffling and tears.