Wednesday, July 23, 2014

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness first came to my attention with the Chaos Walking trilogy.  I loved even the titles: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer,  Monsters of Men.  To me these titles seemed mysterious, unusual  and thought-provoking.  I soon decided that those qualities could be used to describe the books as well.  And they were challenging--reading them was a commitment, a journey that you had to expend some effort in making, but one that rewarded you with the depth and impact of the writing.  His next project, A Monster Calls,  reminded me of  Susan Cooper's famous The Dark is Rising series, not so much thematically but in the superb characterization of ancient supernatural creatures that are tied somehow to the natural world.  I loved the idea of a storytelling monster, but a serious one, not one you felt safe with.  I also loved Jim Kay's earthy illustrations, which were such a moody complement to the text.  It was an easier read for a younger audience, but I found it a tremendously powerful book and I was so chuffed when A Monster Calls became the first book in history to win both the Carnegie medal (for writing) and the Kate Greenaway medal (for illustration).

All of this is to say that I'm definitely a Patrick Ness fan.   I began reading More Than This feeling pretty confident that I was in the hands of a master storyteller who would take me to places I wasn't expecting to go.  With More Than This, Ness is back to writing for an older teen audience, and he's returning to the dystopia genre. Here, Ness's dystopia, unlike many others that we've seen for teens recently, is very solitary, and a lot of the hero's journey is internal.  In fact, we're well into the book before we realize we're reading a dystopian novel at all. The first half reminded me strongly of the existentialist novels I read in my late teens, especially by Camus and Sartre. It's hard not to think of No Exit, particularly as it's not at all clear through most of More Than This whether any of the characters are alive or dead.  At first it seems pretty unambiguous;  the first line of the prologue is "Here is the boy, drowning" and the last line in the prologue is "He dies."  As in No Exit, Seth, the main character, believes at first that he is in hell, and he certainly believes he deserves to be there.  But he still needs to eat and sleep, and he can still be injured and feel pain, so is he really dead? We the readers are constantly kept off-balance--where is Seth, really?  Why is he alone?  Why did he wake up wrapped in bandages?  Are Regine and Tomasz, the two other teens he eventually meets, real, or are they creations of his mind?  Who is hunting them, and why?  And while all this is going on, we're quietly having our hearts broken by the memories Seth gradually recovers of his life on earth, and by the stories of Regine and Tomasz's memories as well.  I think one of the things that makes Ness such a strong and moving writer is the depth of character he can build, and the unflinching way he has of laying bare the darkness that humans can create for each other,  whether they mean to or not.

After I read More Than This, I watched a talk by Ness where he expresses the belief that yearning is the primary emotional state of the teen experience.   It's an interesting idea, and you can certainly read the book as an expression of that thought.  As Seth says, "If there really is more to life, I want to live all of it.  And why shouldn't all of us?  Don't we deserve that?"

There's no trailer for More Than This, but here's the official book trailer for A Monster Calls:

And here's Patrick Ness talking about writing for teens: