I picked up a copy of this book as part of Loudoun County’s One Community, One Book program in anticipation of an author visit later this month. The book is illustrated by Jim Kay and inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, an author who passed away before she was able to write it.
The book is a quick read: it’s 205 pages, but many of them are full-page illustrations. I read it in two sittings. Well, okay—three. I saved the very last pages because I knew it was going to be a heart-wrenching ending, and I wasn’t ready to read it quite yet.
The non-spoiler version: the novel follows a boy named Conor, who has a recurring nightmare. Less scary is a monster—an ancient embodiment of a Yew tree—that visits him some nights at seven minutes after midnight. It insists on telling him three tales, demanding that Conor finish the last tale himself. All this while Conor watches him mother suffer from cancer treatments that don’t seem to be going well. Dealing with such a struggle at home (and with a grandmother he doesn’t get along with and a father overseas in America with his new family), Conor begins to feel invisible and inhuman. Whether you read the monster as figurative or literal, it is an embodiment of his fears and his repressed knowledge of the truth, and it is there to help him cope.
And now, after this picture of the open book, the spoilers:
Seriously, spoilers are coming.
If you don’t want the story ruined, then stop reading here.
As the reader, I knew almost from the start that Conor’s mother was going to die. The bottom line is, Conor knows it as well—even if only in his subconscious. There is enough foreshadowing (as well as the darkness of the black-and-white illustrations) to prepare the reader for that. It’s the HOW that’s intriguing and the way the monster’s presence informs the plot and the character development.
There are some things that happen in the story that I thought were over-the-top or “unfair,” but that was part of the monster’s point: life is unfair. But it seemed especially horrible that while Conor is dealing with his mother’s pending death, there is a bully at school being especially nasty to him, and his teachers seem to be doing very little about it. It also seemed especially frustrating that Conor’s father would allow his new wife in America to dictate when he could go visit his son to comfort him (when his father showed up, Conor’s smile was the biggest it had been in years).
But that was the monster’s point. The three stories the monster tells are meant to be read as allegories for life. Life is not fair, and humans are complicated. There are no “good” or “bad” guys most of the time. There are just people, and they are both good and bad. This is a lesson Conor has to recognize in himself: in the beginning of the novel, he is “too good,” cleaning up at home and helping his mother by running a household essentially. He goes through a rough patch, physically destroying things and feeling extreme guilt about it before realizing the truth about the monster’s tale. Humans have elements of goodness and badness within us.
John Boyne, the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, wrote that the book is “an honest, heart-wrenching story that moved me to tears.” I have to agree. I did save the last few pages to read because I knew what was coming. I thought if I gave myself more time, it would better prepare me for the ending. But no—the ending was just as gut-wrenching as I expected, perhaps even moreso.
It’s a good—but sad—book, especially for anyone who has dealt with a loved one’s death, and especially a death one could foresee, a death that was prolonged and sprinkled with bits of hope and false hope. But in many ways, going through the process with Conor is somewhat healing. It reminds us that we are not alone in this, although the world may seem to continue turning as always.