Page 45 Review by Stephen
"You will tell me the fourth tale. You will tell the truth."
"And what if I don't?" Conor said.
The monster gave the evil grin again. "Then I will eat you alive."
On Sunday I read this cover to cover and wept. It's possibly the single most affecting piece of prose I've ever read, which spoke to my deepest fear which I have lived with all my life. I suspect I'm not alone. It's a book about nightmares - both waking and dreamt - and about isolation, communication, death and denial. And when you finally learn the truth which has been plaguing Conor since his mother first fell ill, you will understand why he must speak it or be eaten alive forever.
"The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do."
Conor is living alone with his Mum, learning to be increasingly self-sufficient. His father moved away to America six years ago with his new wife, and his mother is undergoing yet more treatment. The first round didn't work, nor did the second. It makes her ill and leaves her tired. Conor understands this - he knows that it will all make her better - but he too is tired because he's been having the same nightmare over and over again, almost every night since before his mother's hair fell out, since before she was first hospitalised, since, it seems, forever: the darkness and the wind and the terrible screaming
Now the monster comes calling when Conor is awake. This is not the nightmare; it is a different beast altogether. It is the churchyard yew tree crawled to life, bellowing through his bedroom window and threatening to break in. It is dark and gigantic, bristling with branches, its coiled muscles creaking and cracking and groaning like the walls of Conor's house under its thunderous weight. But Conor's not afraid of its bark or its bite. Conor is afraid of the truth.
The prose we'll come to momentarily but I bought this in originally based on Jim Kay's art. I'd been enthusing to a new customer about Bernie Wrightson's FRANKENSTEIN and its layers of intricate linework, talking about Franklin Booth and Gustave Doré before him, and she reciprocated with page after page on her mobile of these terrifying, pitch-black illustrations which bleed right to the edge of each double-page spread with the power you'd expect from Bill Sienkiewicz. The monster morphs like Stephen Bissette's Swamp Thing, filling the grandmother's dead living room, its shoulders hunched to the corners of the ceiling, threatening to burst through the plasterwork. It blots out the evening sky outside in the garden, black on black, still leaving much to the imagination as all nightmares should.
That the prose is so powerful is for us pure serendipity but the reason I'll be buying it for everyone. It's not in the language, it's in the delivery. Moreover it's in Patrick Ness' comprehension of the psychology of it all, particularly the resistance to truth, the isolation at school when rumours of his Mum's illness first start spreading and he can actually see them spreading in schoolyard whispers out of the corner of his eye, and the way special treatment on compassionate grounds renders Conor virtually invisible. Here he's just made himself very visible indeed.
He was going to be punished. It was finally going to happen. Everything was going to make sense again. She was going to exclude him.
Punishment was coming.
Thank God. Thank God -
"But how could I do that?" the Headmistress said.
"How could I possibly do that and still call myself a teacher?" she said. "With all that you're going through." She frowned. "With all that we know about Harry." She shook her head slightly. "There will come a day when we'll talk about this, Conor O'Malley. And we will, believe me." She started gathering the papers on her desk. "But today is not that day." She gave him a last look. "You have bigger things to think about."
It took Conor a moment to realise that it was over. That this was it. This was all he was going to get.
"You're not punishing me?" he said.
The Headmistress gave him a grim smile, almost kind, and then said almost exactly the same thing his father had said. "What purpose could that possibly serve?"
The fracturing of friendships, the bullying at school, Conor's resentment of a seemingly stringent grandmother getting in between Conor and his Mum: that's all played so well. And as for the agonising avoidance of communication
well, there's a constant sense of ellipsis throughout, both during the day between Connor, his mother, his grandmother and his newly Americanized Dad, and at night as the monster keeps calling and insisting that after his three stories which initially confound Conor, Conor will have to tell his.
Patrick Ness keeps you in agonising, chest-knotted suspense right until the end and oh there'll be tears or you're dead inside. Some things are better left unsaid. Other things need to be spoken.
"Stories are wild creatures," the monster said. "When you let them loose, who knows that havoc they might wreak?"