A monster calls on Conor just after midnight in the shape of a yew tree looming over his bedroom window. But Conor is not afraid. “I’ve seen worse,” he says. And he has – his waking life is filled with helping care for his mother during another round of cancer treatments, a father who has largely disappeared to be with his new family in America, a gang of bullies at school, and losing faith in his one true friend. Amid all this turmoil, it is almost a relief to be visited by the yew tree at night. Or at least it’s a nice change of pace from the monster in his other nightmare – the one that truly frightens him.
The idea for this book came from a Young Adult author named Siobhan Dowd, who unfortunately passed away from breast cancer in 2007. (I am not familiar with Dowd’s work, but will certainly be looking it up now.) Patrick Ness was called in to shape the idea into book form, along with illustrator Jim Kay, and the result is something special. The language is simple but haunting, and Conor’s pain and uncertainty show in stark and heartrending ways. The illustrations are dark, textured, and expressive, and add immeasurably to the overall atmosphere of the book. Simply put, this is a beautiful volume in terms of story, prose, and presentation.
Unlike other books about cancer that I’ve read, this one addresses, in great depth and with great insight, the problems facing those left behind, especially children. Conor’s mother is the one being ravaged by the disease, but the story follows his “five stages” of grief – which seem to all descend upon him at the same time. What especially impressed me was that he was allowed to be angry. So often, especially in Young Adult literature, characters hold back from expressing the full extent of their fury. Here it practically leaps off the page at times, palpable and violent. And yet, even at his worst, you just want to hug Conor and tell him it’ll be all right. Even when you know it won’t.
I wish I could remember where I first heard about this book. I’m sure it was another blog or a word-of-mouth recommendation, and I’m glad I paid attention. It’s a powerfully moving story that you should not miss. Full disclosure: I cried. Sobbed. I can’t remember the last time a book turned me into such an embarrassing ball of snot and tears. It was just a few specific pages that got to me, but they were so effective that I would read a line, grab a tissue and wait for it to pass, then read the next line and need another tissue and a few more minutes to compose myself. I don’t normally read or recommend depressing books, but I don’t think this one is, in the end. It’ll pull on your heartstrings, but not in a cheap or manufactured way. It is just a brutally honest but beautifully told look at what so many people face every day.