My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An urban-fantasy about a boy, called Connor, who is trying to cope with his mother’s ever worsening cancer condition. Connor is plagued by nightmares, haunted by a monster that wants to take away what is most precious to him. Then one night, Connor wakes to find that a monster has come calling; just not the monster he was expecting.
The monster comes in the form of a Yew tree, specifically the Yew tree that Connor can see out of his window, which normally stands in a graveyard adjoining a small chapel. The tree claims to be an ancient entity that has walked the earth for centuries. He informs Connor that he will visit him a set number of times, and on each occasion will tell him a story, but on his final visit, it will be Connor’s turn to tell a story. The monster keeps his promise and tells him each night that his visits a story about a person that has called upon his help. The stories rarely end the way Connor expects them to.
A lot of people will empathize with the lead character as many people have been in similar difficult positions, witnessing someone they love helplessly succumbing to an illness. It is akin to falling slowly down a black hole of despair trying to cling on to anything that offers a shred of hope. The boy is understandably bitter and to some degree blames himself for being unable to help his mother. He therefore endures being ostracized by his peers and being the target of choice for a charismatic bully at school. The other character of note in the story is the titular monster who seems to permeate throughout the pages like a benevolently cruel taskmaster. Ness grounds his monster in ancient folklore that gives the monster a kind of international appeal.
The book could be set anywhere, but it clearly has European/Colonial roots, but the setting itself isn’t as important as how this book feels. There is an overwhelming sense of gloom and darkness, like a place that exists within the real world but only in the shadows, where the cleansing power of the sun cannot reach.
The idea for the novel comes from Siobh Dowd, who herself died of cancer. I am not familiar with her work, but I am familiar with Patrick Ness, who took on the task of using Siobh’s notes and writing the novel. If you’ve read The Knife of Never Letting Go (and I do recommend that you do), you will be aware of Ness’s brooding style. This book is no different. If you think that this is going to be a nice book about some cuddly monster because of the pretty book cover, then you’re barking up the wrong Yew tree. Many people will tell you that this is a horrible, depressing book with a terrible ending. Those people may be half right, but have missed the point of the novel. What this book does is tells a truth that people in similar situations have experienced and for many it will be like a balm to help release the sadness that has built up inside. Like Connor, it will offer that release and absolution that carers of sick family members seek.
This is a harrowing and at times a depressing book to read, but it also is one of the most honest too. Be forewarned before approaching this book, this is no fairy tale, it is just life, in all its glory and ugliness.
P.S. Apologies for the delay in getting this review out, my family and I have just been through a difficult few weeks ourselves. Hopefully, regular service will resume. Next up is Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart.