I have a very short list of media that’s torn my heart apart. This book is on it. The short version: whenever I wonder what death does to human, I read this book. The central character is fantastic but the supporting cast can become background noise, so 4/5 on characters. The plot gets a 5/5 for its layers and portrayal of the significant in the mundane, and the philosophy gets a 4/5 (but only because this is one person’s experience with death, not a more comprehensive view of the subject). I’d recommend it to those who don’t mind illustrations, like to think, and can handle heavy material (ouch, a little bit too soon for that pun, pg. 180).
NOTE: *words mean my evidence references a specific instance and potential spoiler–they’re elaborated upon at the end of the review.
Themes/Questions: Do lies help or hurt us; The harder truths; Intention vs. Action; Just Punishment/Judgement
Premise: Conor’s life isn’t normal. His mom has cancer, and the disease is starting to rule his life. He’s sick of the stares, the special attentions, and the fact that his parents are divorced. Add to that his recent recurring nightmare, and you have a seriously troubled thirteen year old. In the midst of his inner struggles, he meets a monster–a monster out to tell him some truths.
My Thoughts: There’s a lot to this book. I don’t think I really understood the ending lines* until just recently, even. But the more I think about it, the more I like what it has to say. A Monster Calls explores the layered, often complex feelings someone can have regarding death and loss. On the one hand, all he wants is for his mum to get better. On the other, he starts to wish for a return to normality*, for a cessation of the pain and tension and endless waiting. Or rather, he’s afraid that this is his new normal, that this non-world of curious stares and hushed conversations will never go away. Because of that, he’s willing to accept almost any lie about his mum to make things better. That was one of the most interesting things I learned from A Monster Calls: the human being’s ability to deceive itself. We are willful creatures and often consciously object the truth in favor of what makes us feel good in the short run. When the truth is hard to face, we run away*. In the same measure, however, we often feel we need those lies–that we simply cannot handle anything more or we shall break. Humanity does have a breaking point, after which we begin to shut down out of self defense. Man’s Search for Meaning speaks of that breaking point, where emotion and sensitivity become dulled in the face of absolute horror.
Many of the monster’s stories also reveal the effects of just punishment. Both the first story he tells and the last* involve this common theme. A just punishment, the monster also implies, must revolve around an action–not simply a thought*.
The ending itself brings tears to my eyes. Every time. Look forward to it.
Lastly, if we are to discuss the philosophy of A Monster Calls we must discuss the monster himself. Some people believe the monster is real, that there is a fantasy element to the story. Others believe he is a figment of Conor’s strained imagination. Either way, he must represent something. After much consideration, I’ve decided the monster represents reality. The most fantastical part of the book is in fact our own reality, the ability to see things as they truly are and accept them. The monster even admits it*. Reality is scary and messy and often hard to understand, but we find that once we listen to it, speak the truth and begin to work through it, we are able to truly begin healing.
*WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS*
A Monster Calls illustration from: Lost Between the Pages.
*1 The Last Lines: “Conor held on tightly to his mother. And by doing so, he could finally let her go.” This relates to a rather nebulous idea I’ve had floating around the last few weeks. Basically it’s this: if it’s important, carry it with you. OR Don’t be afraid to leave things behind. At first this seems a little contradictory, but the concept is that if you’ve really cherished something the way you’re supposed to, you can look back on the memory with all love, no regret. And that is the best thing you can do to honor it. In the last scene of the book Conor is making his best effort to hold on to his mother, to love her the way he needs to so that he can let go without any regrets and simply be thankful for the time they had together. Only by holding on to her as hard as he could was Conor able to allow himself to let her go.
*2 Return to Normality: Everything Conor does as he acts out causes him more pain, because the people around him don’t punish him for it. He gets into fights at school and nothing happens. He destroys the living room and thinks he’s in for it bad, but his Grandma joins in instead of recoiling. He is, to some degree, acting out to incur punishment–not only for what he deems sinful thinking about his mother’s death but also to regain some sense of normality: “this is the way things ought to be.” “When I do wrong, I am punished. That is normal.”
*3 When the truth is hard, we run away: Whether we’re running by avoiding it or fighting it (fight or flight), when we find the truth hard to accept our first instinct is to deny it somehow. The entire book is spent convincing him to admit his truth: a part of him wants his mom to die. As a troubled boy already, that has to be one of the hardest things to accept about yourself.
*4 Just punishment stories: In the first story, the queen is innocent of murder–it is in fact the prince who killed the princess. Conor misunderstands and believes this means he shouldn’t judge others, that the queen was not a witch–but the monster has a harder truth in mind. He tells Conor not to be silly: the queen was in fact a witch. “Why did you save her then?” “Because what she was not, was a murderer.” Similarly, Conor was justly punished for his actions only.
*5 Un-entertained thoughts receive no punishment: In the story of Conor’s truth, Conor desires to be punished for wishing his mom had died already. The monster doesn’t see what Conor thought as being wrong. “It was not wrong. It was only a thought, one of a million. It was not an action.”
*6 The Monstrous Reality: The monster says he is “this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.” Reality has come for Conor in a big way: his mother is dying, and he needs to accept that fact quick, before she’s gone. The Monster’s purpose also speaks of reality: his stories teach the truths of years past, and the last story is the truth of his present. Conor’s truth, the whole truth of his feelings.
Thanks for reading,