I started re-reading Patrick Ness’ incomparable ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy earlier this week just because it has been years since I last treated myself to it, and it is one of my all-time favourite stories to boot. I began to read it before the current media focus on the ongoing refugee crisis, and before Ness himself began this incredible fundraising campaign, which has (at time of writing) made over £200,000 available to Save the Children UK in order to help the struggling refugee families. But, in light of these developments, I’m writing this review with the aim of encouraging anyone who has never read the Chaos Walking books to buy and read them – or, indeed, any of Patrick Ness’ books. He has written many. His endeavours to help the dispossessed have made the last few days bearable for me, and (I’m sure) for many others. I know of no better way to support him than by – firstly, and obviously – donating to his cause, but also buying his books, and those of the other authors who have pitched in to help. The success of his campaign has truly been an amazing thing to witness and be part of.
In any case. On with the review.
The Knife of Never Letting Go (Walker Books, 2008) tells the story of Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown. He is weeks away from turning thirteen, a birthday which will mark the moment in which he becomes a man, and – apparently – when his whole life will change. Because the newly-fledged men (who were once Todd’s contemporaries) stop speaking to him and including him in their lives once they pass their own thirteenth birthdays, he is friendless at the book’s beginning, save for his formidable, loyal, loving and clever dog, Manchee. He lives on a farm with his foster fathers, Ben and Cillian, who have raised him as their own since the deaths of his parents many years before.
The story is set in the future, where colonisers and settlers (presumably from Earth) have come to a ‘new world’ in search of a free and peaceful life, one free of discrimination. The planet they arrived on had a native population, known as the Spackle, whom Todd has been raised to believe are now extinct. The Spackle were dangerous, responsible for a virus which killed the women of Prentisstown, including Todd’s mother, and most of the men, and which caused the men who were left over to suffer with Noise, which essentially renders their every thought audible to anyone around them. Privacy is unknown. A man’s thoughts – even while he dreams – are broadcast, appearing like clouds of pictures around his head and as a ‘soundtrack’. The virus also made it possible to hear the voices of animals, so every beast, from Manchee to the livestock in the fields, are also broadcasting their thoughts, simplistic and repetitive as they might be. This means that Todd’s world is filled, edge to edge, with constant sound, the Noise making peace impossible to find, blending together to make a torrent of meaningless babble which must be aggravating, even for those who are used to living with it. Then, one day, as he explores a swamp not far from his home, Todd and Manchee come across something they’ve never known before: a patch of eerie silence, which shouldn’t exist…
As soon as Todd discovers this silence, his world changes. Ben and Cillian urge him to leave, straight away, telling him that he must reach another settlement – even though Todd has been raised to believe Prentisstown is the only settlement on his planet. In the confusion of his leaving, the men of Prentisstown attack Todd’s home, putting his fathers’ lives at risk, and he is pitched out alone into the swamp (where the crocs live) with only Manchee and a backpack, containing his late mother’s journal, to keep him on the right path. Thus begins an adventure whereby Todd finds himself meeting the most unexpected person possible, being chased by an army, and discovering why, exactly, his status as the ‘last boy’ in Prentisstown was so important.
This book is filled with brilliant characters (human and animal alike – I defy you to find a fictional dog more memorable and lovable than Manchee), and some of the most gripping, realistic – despite the literally otherworldly setting! – and emotionally affecting dialogue and set-pieces in modern fiction. It’s incredibly evocative, using slang and non-standard spelling to evoke dialect and accent, and as taut as a guitar string. The tension never lets up, the stakes never fail, and in Mayor Prentiss, Ness has created one of the most well-rounded and interesting baddies I’ve ever read. It is violent, immediate, blood-thirsty in places, and in other places it can be genuinely terrifying, because it confronts the darkest impulses in the human heart. But it also throbs with love – that between friends, between a boy and his dog, between a long-lost mother and her adored son, and that between a pair of tender foster fathers who give their all for the child they have sworn to protect. It truly is a book which promises much and delivers on it, and one which more than stands up to a re-read. It deals with issues like slavery, injustice, genocide, religious fundamentalism, sexual and gender-based inequality, colonialism, power imbalances, tyranny, and more, and all in the form of a brilliantly written, masterfully crafted tale. This is a book which tells of other worlds, ones intended to surpass and improve on our own, but which bear all the ill fruit of our own weaknesses.
YA literature is all about vampires and werewolves? I think not. Read this book, be amazed, and you’ll immediately find yourself craving its sequels. It’s a challenge, and my gauntlet is thrown!