Friday, 13 September 2013

Book Review: More Than This by Patrick Ness

*Spoiler Alert: it is difficult for me to review this book without discussing a plot twist. As such, it may be better left until you've already read the book.

Occasionally, upon sitting down to write a review, I find myself trying to picture George Orwell in his 'cold and stuffy' bedsit writing reviews. And as I do so, I try to ask the question: 'What would Orwell think?'

I admire George Orwell for his capacity to strip away all veneer of style and get straight to the meaning of a book. He's a total utilitarian; if a book doesn't do something, or if it doesn't reflect a political view he is comfortable with, it is slaughtered. The clarity of his critical eye amazes me, even where I disagree with the execution of it. And by thinking of him, I try to engender greater critical assurance in my reviews.

Were Orwell alive today and asked to review More Than This, I fear his vicious pen would be scathing. For Ness comes perilously close to presenting without outrage a fictional world in which global collapse has resulted in humanity willingly swapping personal liberty for something safe and comatose. There is even a character known as the Driver whose job it appears to be to ruthlessly maintain the status quo against any challenge. To Orwell, writing in the 1930s and 40s, More Than This would have seemed startlingly reactionary.

And yet, in making this comparison I find myself realising how different modern society is to that which Orwell would have recognised. Reviewers of today will be likely to frame discussion about this book as another statement of Patrick Ness's implacable refusal to cow-tie to the supposed conventions of what young adult fiction can and can't be about. Ness is every bit as radical as Orwell, though as thinkers they are possibly as opposite as it is possible to be. If there is a central concern in Ness's literature it is that human beings are sympathetic, even when at their most horrible, and that an understanding of the world lies in understanding people, warts and all. Where Orwell lives in the black and the white, Ness is in all the shades of grey between. I admire Orwell for his certainty about the world, but I love Patrick Ness for his uncertainty.

More Than This begins with a teenage boy, Seth, dying in icy cold water, his drowning body smashed against the rocks. Yet he wakes up naked and exhausted in a dusty, abandoned world that appears to be the suburban English street he grew up on. Is this an afterllife? Is he in hell, forced to spend eternity on his own, with vivid agonizing memories of his life assaulting him whenever he shuts his eyes? Memories of the tragedy that drove his family across the Atlantic to America, memories of friendship, love, and betrayal, and all that led up to his death. As Seth explores his new world and tries to understand what is going on, we can't help wondering: what is going on?

More Than This is at its best when it is least dramatic. The plot begins being about life after death and turns into a science fiction distopia in which humanity has abandoned a dying planet to live in a networked virtual reality and yet doesn't ever quite get anywhere. But around this, we have a story about feeling trapped as a teenager and certain that there must be more than this to life yet not knowing where or how it will happen. There is a wonderfully touching, supportive loving relationship between Seth and his best friend Goodmund, that will see it challenged by homophobic people the world over, but which shows everything that young love should be. Ness is a writer with absolutely no time for thoughts about what young adults should and shouldn't be exposed to. If it exists, it is fair game is his approach, and I congratulate him for it.

More Than This doesn't grab me as intensely as his other books have. The distopia feels underdeveloped, the afterlife underwhelming. But the flashbacks are brilliant. I may like to try and imagine what George Orwell would think about a book, but I don't need to agree with him. Patrick Ness is a phenomenal writer. More Than This isn't a phenomenal book, but well worth reading nonetheless.

More Than This was published by Walker Books in September 2013. ISBN: 9781406331158

1 comment:

Ted said...

I read your thoughts on this and wonder if Goodmund references Hesse's Goldmund? Even your lukewarm take on this has me interested. I may have a go.