It is the 27th of December, and as we spent the 26th flying from Yorkshire to Northern Ireland, then doing a second Christmas celebration with my husband’s family, it somehow feels like double Boxing Day. It is one of those cosy, comfortable mornings where no one is doing anything in particular so you can read Twitter for a full hour and a half, if you want to. Proper family time. I decide to read a Christmas present book – A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, bought for me from my parents.
I know nothing about it at all. This year my Christmas list has been crowdsourced from Facebook recommendations of paperbacks. I wanted things that were easy for my parents to get hold of, you see – things that can be bought on amazon for an unalarming amount of money, and delivered in a couple of days. For the second part of the year, Dad hasn’t been well, and we are a small family, unused to hospitals and operations and pill regimes and stepping out of our comfortable roles. I am an only child. I live much further away than I would like. I want to cause the absolute minimum amount of trouble. So I ask for this children’s book, on the earnest advice of a couple of friends, and I don’t even read the blurb.
I find myself plunged into a tale that is a bit like my own, but far, far worse. Conor is not 31 and three quarters, like me, but a mere 13. And it is clear from the opening paragraphs that his mother’s cancer is much, much more serious than my father’s heart condition. And I have my Mum of course – still clattering about reassuringly wearing red lipstick and complaining about having to do the bins on her own, and Conor has only a grandmother he barely knows. He is in a Bad Way. And as the novel opens, a Monster comes to see him – a terrifying being that Conor has a tiny inkling might somehow be able to help.
What follows is an absolutely searing account of what it feels like to worry and to care and to have to suddenly be the brave one in a world that makes a child of you again with its uncertainty and fear, whether you’re a young teen or a millennial with a mortgage and vague ideas about starting a family of your own. But this same time you’re feeling at your very most vulnerable, you are suddenly put into a position with much more responsibility than you would seek nor ordinarily have. I am so full of admiration that these themes can be explained, calmly and beautifully, in a book suitable for a child in year 5.
Now, forgive me, but I cannot properly explain why this book is so wonderful without the use of SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. Because what is truly astonishing about this story is that it gets away with really thoroughly breaking the rules. There is a moment when Conor has what we are sure is a dream sequence, and the direct precursor is that he breaks his grandmother’s treasured clock. And when he wakes up from this… the clock is still broken. In fact, the entire living room is completely trashed. And I absolutely could not BELIEVE the boldness of that. Surely that’s against the rules of the safety of having dreams…
In the end, the mother does not make it – as we have known all along she will not, as has Conor, but neither of us was quite ready to believe it. The Monster was not there to cure the mother, but to cure Conor – to help him face up to his painful and messy emotions about her decline. This is not a fairly tale. There is no happily ever after. But there is a profound reassurance in the idea that the very worst thing can happen, and you will somehow be okay. You will find a way. Perhaps the story will get you through.
I feel it is only fair to give a shout-out to another Christmas present I received this year – Benefit’s They’re Real mascara. I read the whole book with this on and only had to do fairly minor repair work – one of the most cry-proof I’ve seen. Thanks Mum and Dad – and for this book.
My dad is really going to be okay, and hopefully quite soon. But the message that if the worst really did happen, I would still survive, is as valuable today as it would have been when I was, like Conor, a gawky, frightened child.