A Monster Calls – the novel inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd but written, after Dowd’s passing, by Patrick Ness – is about many things. It’s about loss and love and truth and death, about divorce and cancer and bullies, about frustration and grief, about trees and schools and hospitals and parents. But in addition to all this, A Monster Calls is about stories, and all of the art and magic bound up in the telling of them.
In a way, all great novels are about stories and storytelling, and A Monster Calls is certainly great. But rather than address the power of stories and the art of storytelling only by way of example, Ness tackles these themes head on. The novel is packed with stories within the larger story, and Conor, the novel’s protagonist, and the monster of the book’s title engage in several extended conversations about what makes a good story and what, if anything, a good story can do.
During one such discussion, after the monster has finished telling a tale about a queen and a prince and a farmer’s daughter, Conor – frustrated and perhaps a bit bored, too – demands that the monster stop wasting his time and just tell him what the point of the story is already. He asks about the “lesson” behind it, and then promptly decides that it must be about him, Conor, being nicer to his grandmother.
The monster laughs. You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? the monster says. (The creature’s dialogue is always italicized, and not set off with quotes – the same as Conor’s own thoughts.) You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness? The monster’s laughter then grows “louder and louder . . . until the ground was shaking and it felt like the sky itself might tumble down.”
This is only one of many important ideas about stories and storytelling explored in A Monster Calls, but it’s an especially important one for not only readers, but also writers, to remember. Stories – the good ones, at least – aren’t read and written for straightforwardly instructional purposes. A good story doesn’t – and doesn’t try to – contain digestible lessons, nicely packaged morals, a set or even a single answer.
Stories ask questions. Sometimes the hardest ones – the questions it feels (and might even be) impossible to face directly. The greatest stories ask, and then carefully depict the ways in which a question can contort and expand, how even a seemingly simple one can in fact contain countless others. And the greatest storytellers – they’re not answer-providers, but question-posers. They don’t tell you what to think – they provide a space in which you can laugh and cry and wonder and ache and, maybe, at the end of all that, you’ll turn that last page and put the book down feeling like you’ve gained something, something hefty yet invisible, brought about by words yet unspeakable – something that feels very much like an answer.