(I look at these five stars and think, no way. This book cannot be measured with stupid little stars.)
(I will just mention, too, that there are spoilers ahead. This is a book worth not being spoiled, so please do read it first before reading my review. You’ll need a box of tissues, and your blankie.)
As always, I start from my own eccentricity: I am interested in the Monsters of the Mind. We all have them, the Grendels, the Keepers of the Eternal Shame, the beasts blocking the exits in the dark rooms of our neuroses. Their identification and eradication is a particular hobby of mine; you may picture me as a grizzled old gunslinger, hunting them down and shooting them daid.
That was my preconceived notion, going into this book. Having heard merely that it was about a boy with a dying mother who is visited by a monster, I thought, “Here be Grendels, sure enough! I’ll get my gun!”
And indeed, there IS a Grendel in the book, but it’s not the eponymous monster. It’s the nightmare monster in the bottomless pit, the shame so terrible it will surely kill Connor if anyone ever finds out about it (or so he believes – shame monsters cannot really kill us, and that is a secret worth knowing).
No, the main monster in this book was entirely surprising to me, something I don’t usually think of as monstrous, but of course it is. Of course. He’s The Way the World Is, personified (monstrosified?). The Truth, who is the opposite of Shame (who is always, ALWAYS a liar).
As I was working on this review last night, I got really stuck trying to talk about the monster, because of two things. One, part of the beauty of a story like this is that the reader gets to decide what the monster really is, and so all my attempts to say, “The monster means THIS!” are necessarily going to fall flat and miss the mark. And two, the thing that the monster is TO ME, is hard to talk about in any kind of straight line.
(Everything I say from here on out is predicated on a big “TO ME”, ok?)
The monster is the truth, but the truth often encompasses a paradox. The yew is poisonous, and it can heal. The boy can’t let go unless he holds on. Bad men can be good kings or healers; good people come to bad ends that they deserve (and not getting what you deserve can be a miscarriage of justice or a mercy). Being visible can be lonelier than being invisible, but being seen is crucial (that was where I cried hardest, that note from Lily). There can be redemption (and connection!) in destruction. The world is unfair, but there is a fairness to the unfairness and a comfort in the impersonal nature of it all.
This was a very deep and spiritual book with no mention whatsoever of a deity, a book that speaks to the true heart of the experience without telling you what conclusion you’re supposed to draw.
(And there’s parts of it I’m still mulling over. What we think doesn’t matter? Really? I can bend my mind around to kind of getting that – with a great deal of sleight-of-mind THINKING – and I’m still not sure I agree. I suspect it’s a terminology issue, and that I DO agree if he phrased it differently.)(Sorry, getting hung up on nothing, as usual)
Anyway, the book is beautiful and absolutely gutting. I cried, though maybe at weird places. That note from Lily, as I mentioned, but also the moment where his grandma gets angry because she couldn’t find him — because she was WORRIED about him — and it’s finally clear she cares.
Reading reviews of this, there are a lot of people’s stories about loved ones who’ve died, how this book brings it back, how this book would have helped. And I won’t pretend I haven’t thought about various deaths (not just of people, either) during and after. And I have to wonder, because I’m always wondering stuff: how much sense would this book make to a kid who hasn’t been through the fire? Some, certainly. Note that I’m NOT planning to read this to my eight-year-old, because I think he’d be absolutely wrecked. He’s a sensitive kid. The sadness would come through, no question, but would the wisdom? I don’t know; I kind of suspect not, that you can’t really grasp these lessons until you have been a veteran of this particular war, but it might vary with the individual. I’m not going to run the experiment, so we’ll just have to content ourselves with speculating.
My own novel’s dedication page is in memoriam to a friend who died two years ago. He was part of my inspiration for dragons taking human form; he was our Irish teacher, cantankerous and scary smart, and he looked like a dragon to me. I am still sad that he never got to read my book.