WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I can’t review these books without discussing their endings!
As a reader, I tend to avoid obviously difficult subjects, both in YA and elsewhere. In fact, I wouldn’t have picked up Stolen if I hadn’t been recommended it by a friend. The blurbs never scream “happy ever after” to me and while I’m fine without a neatly tied everyone-survives ending, topics like illness (in this case, cancer) tell me that this book is unlikely to end with the illness gone away and all characters surviving. As Hazel says about her favourite novel: “It’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck.”
But saying that, I am now going to talk about The Fault In Our Stars (TFioS) by John Green and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (based on an idea from the late Siobhan Dowd) which both address this challenging subject. TFioS is told from the point of view of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old girl who is suffering from incurable lung cancer. A Monster Calls, on the other hand, is the story of Conor and how he copes with his mother’s terminal cancer.
Hazel opens TFioS by attending Support Group, as her mother has decided she is depressed. Hazel disagrees, but goes anyway. It is here that she meets our other protagonist, Augustus Waters. He is a seventeen-year-old boy in remission after losing one of his legs. He is easy-going, confident, and enjoys finding symbolism and metaphor in pretty much everything. The two swap book recommendations: Hazel’s favourite novel, An Imperial Affliction, for Augustus’ book based on a videogame with “a sentence to corpse ratio of nearly 1:1”. Thankfully, Augustus is not as formulaic as his book recommendation would suggest.
The thing I love the most about TFioS (and at the time of writing I’ve read it four times and listened to the audiobook twice) is Hazel’s narrative. For so much of the book you think of cancer as a side-effect of the plot; it doesn’t get in your way. And it means you get more room to enjoy Hazel’s character, her sense of humour, her interests, her view on the world and the people she meets in it. She is very well-read, yet enjoys sitting in for day-long marathons of ANTM. Most importantly, she is not daunted by Augustus. Hazel is very much her own person.
It is this narrative that makes the highs and lows of the novel feel even more heightened. John Green does a wonderful job of creating these carefully orchestrated crescendos, then suddenly tugs you down into something softer, quieter, and inevitably more painful. It is his own reminder that while you can believe in the illusion of health that Hazel (and predominantly Augustus) creates, you are only fooling yourself. It is, after all, an illusion.
The ending is what makes Hazel even more brilliant to me: she understands that the wheels keep turning and she has to keep going, even while dealing with her grief. We know she will not ever live a long and ‘normal’ life, but she closes this chapter of her life with Augustus knowing she will carry on, for however long that will be. It is that optimism, shining through the bleakness, that makes this such a wonderful conclusion to the story. It is heart-wrenchingly sad, but Green does not leave you in total darkness.
A Monster Calls feels considerably darker as a story, and in many ways it is. This is not only because of Jim Kay’s brilliant illustrations, but because the focus is on Conor and the monster. The monster arrives every night just after midnight, waking Conor up from the nightmare he has had since his mum started a fresh bout of treatments. Finding out what the nightmare is forms the climax of the story, but in between visits from the monster we see how Conor manages day-to-day. His parents have separated and his father now lives in America; he lives with his mother and is occasionally visited by his grandma, who he makes no secret of loathing.
Conor drifts through school, and Ness makes the readers feel how he is fading. He is becoming his mother’s illness. Picked on by bullies, unable and unwilling to stand up for himself, you watch him continually self-destruct and become more and more isolated. As this happens during the day, the monster visits him during the night. He is told three stories by the monster, who insists that after these tales are told, Conor will tell him his story: the truth about what happens in his nightmare.
The story is beautifully told, and feels horribly real. It feels so real that it is impossible to distance yourself from it, and the ending will likely have you in tears. It is crafted in such a way that when Conor finally reveals happens in his nightmare, we can understand completely. He has been consistently beating himself up, letting others beat him up, because he can’t shake the guilt of what he feels. It is also made clear he doesn’t ever vent and has nobody really to talk to, which only increases his guilt. This isolation is completely understandable from our external perspective, but we see how it eats him up. When he finally lets go, it is a great weight that has lifted from both Conor and the readers’ shoulders.
While I may not frequent books that discuss subjects like terminal cancer, both TFioS and A Monster Calls are brilliantly worked (and also two of my favourite books). Neither are truly about cancer. TFioS is about first love, and A Monster Calls about the importance of letting your feelings go. Both are brilliantly crafted, and the sort of books that you are determined everyone should read. And therefore I hope you now go away and (re)read them. They are both truly excellent books.
For all things TFioS (FAQ) : http://onlyifyoufinishedtfios.tumblr.com/
A Monster Calls: 10/10