Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd

I have a big problem with corn dollies. Whenever I see a corn dolly, I am no longer a happy, settled and reasonably together grown-up woman. The hidden part of my heart takes over - the part where a frightened, lonely girl who still really, really needs her Mum cowers. Inevitably, I cry. This is almost always embarrassing, particularly when in mixed company, or when I am not expecting to see one, and not in the mood for dealing with those feelings (which is most of the time, since I generally prefer being a happy adult to a pathetic wreck).

I channel the blame and anger for the fact that my Mum died towards corn dollies when I encounter them. When my Mum was very ill, she bought a corn dolly. She told me (although speech was hard for her then) that corn dollies were meant to heal. I was really very angry that it didn't heal her. Who else was there to blame? Mum herself, lived a normal, healthy life. It wasn't a person that killed her. Blaming God seemed unhelpful, since my relationship with God is already fairly dysfunctional, and His minions here on earth often bat away specific questions about why this good person had to die with unsatisfying fridge-door triteness, along the lines of "The Lord moves in mysterious ways". Hmmm. The corn dolly mocks me with the stark reminder that there is nothing crueller than hope, when all hope has gone.

I bought A Monster Calls on the recommendation of a friend whose opinion on books I trust. It arrived yesterday in a delivery from The Red House, and I finished it this morning, having stayed in bed for longer than was really wise in order to finish it. I then had to wait for a further time in bed wiping the tears away, since the ending was really quite sad.

Sad, but not devastating like the end of The Time Traveller's Wife, which left me feeling cheated and distraught. Sad, but also feeling like the story had taught me something. A Monster Calls is the story of Conor. Conor's Mum is ill with cancer, and he is being bullied at school. A monster which takes the shape of a yew tree in the back garden starts to come and visit him. Far from being frightened; Conor is fascinated by the monster and interested in what it has to say. Conor starts to hope that the monster has come to cure his mother, and this hope becomes more pronounced when Conor's Mum reveals that her latest medication is formulated from the yew tree.

The tree tells Conor several stories, of people who he has visited in the past. The stories all serve to show Conor that people's motives and personalities are rarely easy to read or assess. The final story, Conor's story, reveals that the monster has come, not to heal his mother, but to heal Conor himself.

As I sobbed my way through the last few pages, I realised that this tale could also hold a message for me. The corn dolly didn't heal my Mum. She was beyond help by then. Perhaps she bought the corn dolly to help to heal those of us that were left. I think something changed within me when I had children, with regard to my feelings about death. I no longer really fear death, since I have seen that it can bring blessed relief from suffering. However, I do fear, in a gut-churning terrified way, what might happen to those who are left behind. This story is not afraid to tackle this very, very difficult issue. What happens to those who are left? How do they carry on living? I am sure Mum must have spent some very long, lonely hours worrying about the rest of us. I wish I could tell her that she didn't need to. That even though I find it difficult to look at displays of mother's day cards, I am OK. That the love she gave me every day of the 24 years of my life that I had her was enough to see me through centuries, let alone decades. That even when I play back the horror reel in my head of all the times I made her cry or the rows we had, that the length of that is about a millionth of all the times we laughed, or chatted, or I threw my arms around her and just drank in her Mumness.

Fittingly, but also heart-breakingly, the very fact of the book's existence fits in with its theme. Siobhan Dowd came up with the original idea, but died of cancer before she could write it. Ness was handed the baton to run with the story and "make trouble". For this particular reader, however, he failed to do this. For me, he made some peace. A much more difficult and fulfilling thing to have done, to my mind.

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