The phrase "problem novel" is almost universally used as a pejorative even within the world of young adult fiction. "Problem" books are the paper equivalents of the after-school special, where some issue—an eating disorder or an abusive boyfriend or a teen pregnancy or even cancer—occurs and is neatly resolved over the course of a dozen or so chapters. Like 1971's Go Ask Alice, the supposedly real diary of a teen girl who is accidentally dosed with LSD and within months finds herself dead of a heroin overdose, these novels are both heavily pushed in high school English curriculums for their strong messages, and frequently banned for their risqué content. Teens likewise seem to feel a bit torn about them: though they're a touch more grounded in their familiar realities because they're fundamentally grittier than a lot of teen fare, they're also sometimes a bit embarrassing in their heavy handedness.
On its surface, Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls (originally conceptualized by Siobhan Dowd and written by Ness after her death) might seem to have earned the appellation of problem novel. Ness introduces young readers to Conor, a boy who (you guessed it) has a problem: his mother is wasting away from cancer. In fact, Conor's first problem is compounded by a second, in the form of a disinterested father who has almost entirely disengaged from Conor's life. Though Conor is desperate for some real parental love, his father is more concerned with his next franchise, a baby with his new wife in America. So, in the face of his mother's illness, Conor is shuffled off to stay with his grandmother, though he's not entirely sure why; after all, his mother's cancer treatments have always worked before.
But Ness complicates what might otherwise be an edifying, instructive, and altogether hollow tale by overlaying it with rich fantasy. One night the yew tree in Conor's back yard comes alive. This monster brokers a deal with Conor. He'll tell him three stories, and then Conor will give one of his own in exchange.
The magic here is wild, unpredictable, and organic. Though at first Conor believes that the monster follows certain concrete rules, arriving, for example, every night at precisely 12:07, it proves to be an inconstant force through the course of the story. One moment, the monster is leaving yew saplings in Conor's floorboards. Another, it's compelling the boy to acts of surprising destruction.
It's an appropriate kind of magic for Ness's story, which is all about the unpredictable nature of adult realities and how they buck up against the expectations we develop as children. Conor has come to believe he can count on his mother to share meals with him, to provide love, and to recover from her relapses. Of course, the adult reader—and the monster inside of Conor himself—suspect otherwise.
Ness has worked this kind of cross-genre magic before. His Chaos Walking trilogy, which wrapped up last year, began as a sort of picaresque boys' adventure story (which just happened to be set on an alien planet with talking animals and psychic men) before evolving into something deeper: a philosophically complex exploration of war and colonialism, among other things. Here, he executes a similar feat in far shorter a space. A Monster Calls is just over two hundred pages—not all of them occupied by words but instead packed with black and white art by Jim Kay—and still manages startling depth.
This is mostly accomplished through an extreme economy of language. Though Ness's prose is not particularly poetic, each word is absolutely appropriate. Depth of character is established quickly through a narrative voice which perfectly reflects Conor's impending adolescence:
Conor's grandma wore tailored pantsuits, dyed her hair to keep out the gray, and said things that made no sense at all, like "Sixty is the new fifty" or "Classic cars need the most expensive polish." What did that even mean? She emailed birthday cards, would argue with waiters over wine, and still had a job . . . "Two sugars, no milk," she called from the sitting room as Conor made the tea. As if he didn't know that from the last three thousand times she'd visited. (p. 39)
These precise details, modern, which stand in stark contrast against the fairy tale nature of the monster's visits (Conor's grandmother emails; he talks to his father on Skype), ground us firmly in Conor's very specific world. Whereas some authors may have been tempted to universalize Conor's experience—to make him less poor or from an intact family—in order to turn his problems into teaching moments, Ness, instead, is focused on giving us an emotionally accurate tale. This isn't the story of just any death. It's the story of Conor's mother's death. It's Conor's story specifically, messy and painful, full of parental figures who refuse to do the right thing because they are lost in their own grief, littered with bullies and well-meaning teachers and school friends who only make things worse.
If this were a typical contemporary young adult novel (a problem novel, as it were) Conor's conflicts would be easily resolved. Either Conor's life would shape up in a way meant to reassure the young readership—his father would decide to finally take care of his son; his mother would miraculously be cured—or everything would go wrong so that readers could learn a Hard Lesson. Perhaps we'd be treated to violent images of Conor's mother's death, or maybe he'd be shipped off to boarding school, wholly forgotten in the grief of the adults around him. But A Monster Calls resists both of these impulses, instead giving Conor an ending as messy and ambiguous as the beautiful illustrations that litter his book's pages.
In this way, it's a story that transcends the usual messages of most problem novels, a story that's frank without any shallow reassurances, but one that also resists the urge to revel in the macabre. The result is heartbreaking and beautiful. I was moved to tears—or, to be more accurate, I sobbed—and I'm an adult woman. I wouldn't be surprised if A Monster Calls touches many adult readers this way. After all, though Conor's story is unique in its idiosyncrasies, it's also fairly universal. Each of us is likely to one day face the loss of one or both parents. What's more, each of us will feel absolutely alone in our grief. That's the thing about death—like Ness's book, it's complicated and unique. But despite the peculiarities of Conor's situation, by writing with both respect for his young audience and brutal honesty, Ness manages to create a novel that transcends it.
Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. An articles editor for Strange Horizons, her short fiction is forthcoming with Aoife's Kiss and Spaceports & Spidersilk. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.