Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness

This review first appeared on Vulpes Libris where I write a guest review on the first wednesday of every month.

Read: July 2009

The Knife of Never Letting Go in one Tweet-sized chunk:
The Knife of Never Letting Go is a frantic, hair-raising, terrifying, complex, heartbreaking, exhilarating, novel.

But a knife ain’t just a thing, is it? It’s a choice, it’s something you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don’t. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again.”

Public Health Warning:
This book contains probably the most horrific event I have ever read. Having swept through the first two thirds in a frenzy of enjoyment I was so traumatised that I threw the book across the room and had to be persuaded like a petulant toddler to pick it back up and finish.

Additional Public Health Warning:
Read this book. Health is about so much more than simply avoiding trauma and ill health. It is about promoting good health and that comes in many forms.
The Knife of Never Letting Go may have cut me to the quick at times, but I still came away from it hungry for more. Everything about it, even those parts I really wished weren’t there, contributed to one of the most rewarding and exciting reads I have had in months.

But on to the book itself.

Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown. But Prentisstown is a town like no other. There are no women, only men. And everyone can hear everything that everyone else is thinking in a constant and never-ending stream of Noise. There is no such thing as silence. No such thing as privacy. And until he becomes a man there are secrets which the rest of the town is keeping from him.

It is no wonder he is a so pissed off.

Then one day Todd and his dog Manchee stumble upon a hole in the Noise, a spot of absolute silence. The silence of a girl.

But that is impossible. There are no women left on New World. Unless everyone has been lying to him. And if that is the case, he is in danger. While Todd, Manchee, and the girl flee across New World in search of safety and answers, the men of Prentisstown are preparing for war...
The Knife of Never Letting Go is a frantic, hair-raising, terrifying, complex, heartbreaking, exhilarating, novel. It combines the pace and excitement of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, the invention, intelligence of quality of writing of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and the moral ambiguity of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines. It is a great book.

It is always difficult to write a good review of a book you love – the tendency to overuse hyperbole, bore the reader with irrelevance, or fail to view it all with a critical eye – but when that book is as multi faceted as The Knife of Never Letting Go it becomes doubly so. It would be so easy to compile a long bullet point list of all the diverse things I love about it, yet drawing them together as Patrick Ness does is far harder. His skill is in telling a poignant and intellectually rewarding tale which remains utterly unputdownable. The Chaos Walking trilogy, of which this is the first book, is packed with political intrigue, social commentary and thoughtful set pieces. Above all, it is about growing up and finding your place in a world which is nothing like you have been told it was. Gender relations are a good example of this. Because only men's thoughts are audible in Noise, New World is racked by pretty horrendous inter gender tensions. But instead of the usual sloppy journalistic stereotyping of the 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' brigade, Patrick Ness actually explores what it is like to try and get to know someone whose background and communication style is different to your own. It takes time, and is a far cry from the fantasies he has grown up with, but as Todd gets to gets to know Viola, he comes to understand that despite the apparent differences, men and women are really not much different. There is a profound moment towards the end when this realisation hits him.

And there, in that morning, in that new sunrise, I realize something.
I realize something important...
I know what she’s thinking...
I can read her Noise even tho she ain’t got none.
I know who she is.
I know Viola Eade.”

The Knife of Never Letting Go is crammed with similar Eureka passages where frenetic reading grinds to a halt as you stop and consider just how special it is to capture something so simply and with such little pretence. There is a whole secondary subtext to the plot itself which adds great depth to what is already a powerful work of imaginative fiction. Another glorious moment comes right at the heart of the novel, when they stumble into a sea of giant cows all thinking the same single word of Noise together, singing it to each other at different pitches so that it becomes a melody.

They're singing Here. Calling it from one to another in their Noise.
I am.
we are.
we go.
is all that matters.

Can I say?
It's like the song of a family where everything's always all right, it's a song of belonging that makes you belong just by hearing it, it's a song that'll always take care of you and never leave you. If you have a heart, it breaks, if you have a heart that’s broken, it fixes.”

That is what this book is all about: multiplicity, uncertainty, the absence of a simple truth. The struggles always just around the corner, and the beauty which can be found in the simplest of moments. If you are looking for a book to get a teenage boy reading this might be it. Todd is a very strong and engaging male lead. His mindset is that of many teenagers, his reactions to his world familiar. In the course of the journey he is forced to think long and hard about such things as the dangers of carrying a knife, how to interact with women, how to control his emotions. The narrative is written from his point of view, in his own vernacular style which is easy to get into and fits his caustic yet kind persona perfectly. This is not a 'boy's book' though, any more than it is a book solely for teenagers. It is another great example of the crossover literature which is in such a healthy state at the moment. The Knife of Never Letting Go is a book which I struggle to imagine anyone not liking.

And the tragic event which gave rise to my Public Health Warning at the outset of this review is the moment that really makes it. It may be painful, almost unbearably so, but at that moment you know that this is no light fairy tale in which everything will turn out okay. Here is a novelist who has no qualms about testing his readers. At any moment he may kill off your favourite character, or make them do something thoroughly horrible. There is no good and evil, no black and white, just a whole lot of moral ambiguity and painful mistakes. That uncertainty makes for an unpredictable read in which nothing ever turns out quite as you expect it to.

And just when you think safety and comfort are within Todd's grasp they are snatched away and the book ends on a precipice. Chaos Walking is a trilogy to really get your teeth into. The Ask and the Answer is a fitting and even more ambiguous sequel and I can't wait until Monsters of Men, the final part in the Chaos Walking trilogy, is published in May 2010. 240 days and counting...

9.5 out of 10


Sarah said...

Are you aware that there is an exclusive short story set in this 'universe' on the Booktrust website?
Patrick Ness is their writer in residence and has written it specially for them.

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks Sarah. Yeah I found it a few weeks ago. Haven't actually got around to reading it yet but I have printed it off and am planning to read it this weekend.