Book Review Saturday – ‘More Than This’

Right.

For today’s book review post, I’m going to attempt the impossible. It’s something you should definitely not try at home; I’m a trained professional, and all that.

Step back! I know what I'm doing. I think. Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

Step back! I know what I’m doing. I think.
Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

I’m going to try to write a book review without giving away any pertinent details about the story, because the book I’m reviewing is the sort of tale that you just can’t spoil. Pretty much anything you say about what happens in it may, possibly, ruin someone else’s enjoyment, and that would be A Very Bad Thing.

The book is this one, right here:

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Patrick Ness is an author who gets my blood pumping. I adored his ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy, so much so that I simply couldn’t wait for the third book to be published in paperback, and I had to buy it in hardback; normally, I hate having two-thirds of a trilogy in one format, and the last book in another, but I made an exception for this one. As well as that, I loved his ‘A Monster Calls’ more than I can express in words. It touched my heart in ways that no other book has ever done, or ever will. ‘Chaos Walking’ and ‘A Monster Calls’ are works of genius – I don’t think that’s overstating the case – and so it might not be a surprise to learn I expected great things of ‘More Than This’.

I’m still not sure, really, whether this book lived up to those expectations, exceeded them, or did none of the above. Reading it has put me in a spin, and I suppose that’s the point behind it. My reaction is, probably, what the author was aiming for; if so, then he achieves his writerly goals in spades.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the protagonist of this book, a seventeen-year-old boy, drowns within the first three pages. The whole point of the story is that we are reading about what happens to him after that. The description of his death is shocking and brutal – we are left in no doubt that he suffers, albeit briefly, before the cruel sea dashes him against some rocks, causing him an unsurvivably grievous injury. The opening chapter is typical of the book, employing sparse and beautiful language, with powerful and gripping imagery and characterisation. The chapters about the boy are written in the present tense, which gives them a chilling immediacy and makes the reader feel as though they are taking each step of his journey with him.

For, of course, there is a journey to be taken.

The boy wakes up in a place familiar to him, but also shockingly unfamiliar. As he puts together where he is, and why he has ended up there, we learn about his life and family, his past, and what he has suffered up to this point. The author handles all this – the boy’s thought processes, the setting, the ways in which he struggles to figure out what’s happening, the fear and isolation and crushing loneliness that start to afflict him – with sensitivity and skill, and he creates a truly sympathetic character in his protagonist. The boy wonders if he is in hell, or if he is being punished; as his story is told, we learn that he has spent many years punishing himself for something that happened when he was a child, and for a while I wondered whether this ‘hell’ was of his own making, an extension of the suffering he’d imposed upon himself all through his life.

Whenever the boy falls asleep in this weird world, he relives sections of his life. We meet his parents, his younger brother, his schoolmates. We learn of his love for one of his friends, and their tender relationship. These episodes do not feel like dreams; the boy is literally reliving these moments, and they cause him great pain. At the heart of his sorrow and grief, and his feelings of loss, the reader knows something dark and disturbing is lurking; we know there is a huge, heartrending secret – one too painful for the boy to even admit to – waiting to be uncovered.

I really can’t say much more than this about the plot. Any further detail would destroy the mystery of the book and take away from its central strength – in other words, the unknowable vacuum around which it is built. What I can do is tell you how the book made me feel.

A bit like this, sort of... Image: rgbstock.com

A bit like this, sort of…
Image: rgbstock.com

This is a thoughtful and philosophical novel. It has a teenager as its protagonist, sure, and most of the other characters we meet are also teenagers or children, but… it’s not, in so many ways, a ‘typical’ YA book. It’s a story about life, about fear, about the unknowability of another person’s mind, about hurt and loss and pain and love, and about friendship. It asks huge questions – why are we here? What’s the point of life? Why do bad things happen to good people? – and the answers it offers ask more questions than they solve. This idea, that everything we find out about ourselves or the world actually causes more problems than it explains, is a central theme in the book. Despite its subject matter, it is suffused with positivity, especially toward the end, and – like so many books I love – it shows the power of friendship and self-sacrifice, and how important the connections between people are.

Having said that, I really did feel that the book built up to a crescendo that never really happened. I was crushingly disappointed by the end, but perhaps that’s a personal thing. There were so many things I wished to have explained – and I’m not talking about ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ and ‘What happens after we die?’ because, of course, Patrick Ness knows as much about those things as I do, or as anyone does – but details within the story world, images and characters created in the book, and which could have been explained a bit more clearly. There was one image in particular, a feature of the landscape in this strange ‘other’ place, that I was convinced was full of meaning but which was left unexplored; I found that annoying.

Then, maybe what the author wants is for each reader to come to their own conclusion. If so, then that’s fine – I just wish he’d given us slightly more to go on.

I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that it might upset you if you’ve been bereaved, or if you’re particularly sensitive to reading about the sorts of thing that go in within abusive families. There are some heartrending scenes in this book, sure, and so it won’t suit everyone. However, if you want to read a book which will make you think, and ponder the reality around you, and stimulate your capacity to wonder, then maybe this is the book for you. Just be prepared to be frustrated by it, too.

The most memorable line in it, for me, is this:

Know who you are, and go in swinging.

This is excellent life advice, I think. Believe in yourself, and accept no lies. If I take nothing but this away from ‘More Than This’, then I’ll be happy.

Happy weekend! May you read well.

 

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