We tend to think of grief and mourning as maladies of the mind, but the loss can grow and expand until it feels like more like a presence than an absence. In the poem “Death Barged In,” Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno describes her pain as a mysterious figure in a Russian greatcoat who barges in, slams the door, and now makes all her decisions for her:
Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck,
From now on,
you write about me.
I read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Last Night I Sang To The Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz back to back on a whim, only to find out that they have much more in common than just the word ‘monster’ in the title. Both are by incredibly talented young adult authors, both are about troubled families, and in both books, the loss these protagonists so desperately refuse to acknowledge takes on the physical form of a monster, looming over them.
A Monster Calls was based on the notes of the late author Siobhan Dowd, who had started developing the idea while she was struggling with terminal illness. After her death, Patrick Ness was approached to write the story and finish her work. In the final product, a young teenager named Conor has to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer. Since his father has remarried and moved to another continent and his grandmother is a strict woman who doesn’t understand him, he is all alone, with no one to lean on. His best friend let him down, he is harrassed by a group of bullies every single day… Yet Conor insists that he’s fine and that his mother is going to get better. Until the monster appears.
In Last Night I Sang To The Monster, Benjamin Alire Sáenz touches on themes he would later come back to in Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe (one of my favourite reads of 2014). The protagonist is a teenage boy named Zach who suffers from depression and alcoholism due to a deeply troubled childhood (a violent brother, mentally ill parents, the list goes on). When we meet him, Zach is staying in a psychiatric institute, recovering from a trauma he does not want to remember. He actively represses certain memories, he does not want to talk about what he has been through, and he definitely cannot stand it if anyone expresses any concern. Despite his efforts to deflect any and all pain, Zach is haunted by his past:
‘Are you okay, Zach?’
I am not okay.
I do not know what it means to be okay. I have never known and maybe I will never know.
Okay is just a word so I won’t have to talk about what’s inside.
Okay is a word that means I am going to keep my secrets.
There is something inside me that is killing me.
There is something inside me that wants to let whatever is killing me do its job. I think I could walk into the night and howl like a coyote, howl so the monster could find me and do to me whatever it wanted to do to me. I think I could let the storm swallow me up.
The monster and the night and the storm – they are the same. They want me dead.
‘Are you okay, Zach?’
The monster. The night. The winter.
The monster, the night, the winter – they want me dead.
As much as they refuse to look directly at their own grief, both protagonists are desperate to be acknowledged by others. Zach can’t stop thinking about how beautiful the eyes of his caregivers are, and when he has a breakdown, his therapist grabs him by his shoulders and tells him: “I see you.” Conor, for his part, snaps when the school bullies start pretending that he’s invisible. Still rattled by the intensity of his own response, he gets a note from one of his classmates:
Four lines, and the world went quiet.
I’m sorry for telling everyone about your mum, read the first line.
I miss being your friend, read the second.
Are you okay? read the third.
I see you, read the fourth, with the I underlined about a hundred times.
With this storm of emotions going on inside of them, both Zach and Conor need other people to confirm that they are real, that they exist in this world. That is what it feels like to read these novels: like you are bearing witness to something incredibly dark and intensely private.
I cannot begin to tell you how big an impact these books have made on me and how raw I felt after reading them back to back. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an incredible author who does not get the attention I feel he deserves (seriously, go read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe) and Patrick Ness has proven himself to be a very talented writer as well whose work I need to explore even further. Anyone who has ever been through an intense emotional experience and did not know how to go about living with this weight pressing on their chest – you owe it to yourself to read these books. You will cry your eyes out, it will be downright unbearable sometimes… And then, somehow, you will feel better. There will be light.
A Monster Calls and Last Night I Sang To The Monster are masterpieces of pain; it hurts to read them, but once you’ve started, it is impossible to put them down.
These monsters demand to be heard.
Note: I am retroactively adding Last Night I Sang To The Monster‘s Rafael to my list of Best Adoptive Parents in Literature.