Disclaimer: The book I’m about to discuss is about the fantastical, supernatural experiences of a young boy who’s struggling to accept the severity of his mother’s cancer. I’ve never dealt closely with cancer but am currently trying to gain the tools to start a dialogue about it with someone I care for. For everyone affected by it and their loved one’s, my thoughts go out to you.
. . .
For those of you who don’t know me on a personal level, I’m dating a boy with dark brown hair and a dead mother. Conor likes Metallica and airplanes, orders pancakes every time we go to a diner, and drives like a grandma, two hands on the wheel, always applying careful pressure to the brake pedal.
He doesn’t like to talk about her much. His mom. It’s been over a year since her passing and he says there are times he’s still in denial about what went down; on Mother’s Day this previous year he laid flowers on her grave and when we went out for hotcakes, afterwards, we didn’t say her name.
I don’t know how to talk to Conor about it. My family, like many, has been touched by cancer, but I haven’t been affected as closely as he has- the only relative I’ve had die so far, died of old age.
In an effort to understand, I’ve spent the last few months reading everything I can find. Books on all types of cancer, grief, coping mechanisms. None of them allowed me to reach even a sliver of true understanding until I ran across Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls the other day.
Someone had left it on the floor in the library, misplaced. I leafed through it and discovered- the main character’s name is Conor. No joke. I was all, “dang. This has gotta be a sign. Fate."
I read A Monster Calls standing up in the adult romance section of the library- come on, don’t act like you don’t hang out there too- unable to move. It took me two hours and half the library’s stock of Kleenex. The checkout lady, who had a clear sight of me in her peripheral vision, kept giving me these weird, pitying looks, like she couldn’t decide if I was being a hormonal teenager or a human being experiencing something out-of-body. Something extraordinary.
There are books that change you and then there are books that elevate your entire being into a higher state of consciousness, a higher state of tangible emotion, like- like the feeling you get when you give a standing ovation. Why do we give those? Being on our feet must signal that we resonate with something to the point that it warrants a dramatic physical response. On our feet, we can run. We can dance.
We can stand in the middle of two library shelves and cry over what looks like a children’s picture book.
Starting a conversation with someone who’s been personally and deeply affected by cancer is a difficult thing to do, especially in the emotion-averse society we live in. Saying “I’m sorry” to Conor never felt like enough, but I didn’t have the tools to begin a dialogue, to truly understand a smidgen of what he’s been feeling since his mother's diagnosis came in when he was just a kid.
A Monster Calls started that discussion for me. I called Conor to tell him about the book and after hours of talking he paused. He took a breath. He said something like, “I should just hand people that book and be like: this is how I feel sometimes. This is my backstory."
A Monster Calls, this thin stack of paper and ink, seemingly lifeless on the outside, allowed me to forge a deeper connection with another human being. Patrick Ness’ prose has helped me reach out and extend a hand to someone still struggling with grief, someone who can’t always find the words to explain how he feels. Ness has given us the prompt and we are on a journey to complete it, to understand it, to make our own little story.
So read the book in one sitting. Let it sink in. Then start a dialogue with everyone you know who’s been touched by cancer, everyone who hasn’t, just everyone. tell the birds, tell the trees, tell the department store mannequins: “A Monster Calls” taught me that it’s okay to feel.
Really. It’s okay to feel.
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop