A Monster Calls
The award for most heart wrenching read of 2011 (if only culled from the number I consumed this year) goes to A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Thankfully, this isn't simply a story that is engineered to rip at your heartstrings for the perverse glee of watching you sob (though you will sob). The sadness in this tale comes with an attempt to help the protagonist understand and cope with terrible things happening around him. It's an emotional lesson in grief and the fact that sometimes the thing we most fear will happen... and what is even harder is that we'll need to keep living after it does.
A Monster Calls is a story about a young boy visited one night by a monster after midnight... but this is not the monster he was expecting. Conor is expecting the monster from his nightmare, but instead he's visited by something ancient and wild... something that will make him face far scarier things than anyone so young should ever have to face (which, incidentally, are part of his nightmares). Conor's mother has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments and the latest round has taken a particular toll. Conor's grandmother -- who, in his opinion, acts nothing like a real grandmother should act and who Conor dislikes intensely -- has come to look after Conor, though he is used to looking after himself and his mother, so he remains convinced that his grandmother's assistance is not needed. Conor's father now lives in America with his new family and rarely sees his firstborn son, though it appears even Conor's father is coming to visit and that doesn't really bode well. As his mother's condition worsens, Conor is repeatedly visited by the monster and while Conor might simply wish to dismiss this monster as a nightmare, he can't quite dismiss the rather tangible evidence that he is, in fact, not entirely dreaming it all up. The boy who has had to grow up quite quickly and is so used to handling everything must find a way to survive the terrifying fact that his mother will die and he cannot do anything to change this.
If you are not in tears by the end of this book, then you must have a heart of stone. I freely admit that I bawled and even now, recalling the novel, my eyes are misting. The brilliance of the novel, though, is not in a sob-story. It's in the inventive creation of a monster that provides Conor with other things to think about... that all end up tying back to the fact that Conor must deal with his grief. There are many lessons that Conor learns from the monster... among which is the fact that it is okay for Conor to really feel whatever he's feeling... whether that's sadness or rage or selfishness or pure and simple sorrow. For anyone who has lost a loved one, this book will hit home and hit hard.