This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, complex book. Even the story behind the book is beautiful, heartbreaking, and complex: Siobhan Dowd had an idea, but passed away from cancer before she could write the story. Patrick Ness was asked to write the book, and as he says in the Author’s Note, he knew he couldn’t write the story Dowd would have written. He decided to try to write a story she would approve of. I believe he succeeded.
Conor O’Malley’s mother is very sick, possibly dying. One night at 12:07, the yew tree from a nearby graveyard forms itself into a giant, frightening monster and comes crashing into his room. Thus begins a series of visitations from the monster, who, like everything and every character in this novel, is no simple creature. Is he evil? Is he kind? Is he destructive? Is he gentle? Yes to all of these, and more. He yells, he rages, he destroys, and he tells stories in which the bad guys seem to win. But he also seems to be there to help Conor sort out his problems–with his mother’s illness, his father’s absence, his grandmother’s coldness, his classmates’ bullying.
This little book, with its dark illustrations (beautifully wrought by Jim Kay) and its suspenseful scenes and its quirky but compelling premise, grabbed me from the very beginning and did not let go. The beauty of this novel for me is how accurately it portrays this messy business of being human. We have thoughts we wish we didn’t have, do things we wish we hadn’t done, hurt and are hurt by the people we love and who love us. Nothing is ever tied up quite as neatly as many novels for children would have us believe or hope. How wonderful of Ness to take all of that complexity and deliver it in a tight, suspenseful novel that I expect kids and adults alike will be moved by.