There is a boy and he is drowning. The sea batters him unforgivingly against unrelenting, insurmountable rocks, which cut his skin and ultimately snap his spinal column. He dies, his final thought a plea for what he knows not. Then, he wakes up. He’s dead, of this is is certain, so why does he find himself in a strange post-apocalyptic version of a childhood he left long ago, a childhood that leaving was a blessing? Is this his own personal purgatory?
Or is it something more?
We meet the boy in the midst of death and watch as he dies, wakes and slowly attempts to make sense of his subsequent eerie surroundings. His initial panic is tangibly real, as is the fear, confusion and denial that follow. Through a series of dream sequences he relives key moments from his life, all of which seem to be leading to some sort of revelation but whether that revelation will be for the boy or for the reader alone remains tantalizingly unclear. It would have been easy to write the boy as a cipher, with his experience rather than his character taking centre stage but Ness instead imbues him with strength, weakness, hubris and regret. Even in his weaker moments, the boy is smart, self-aware and almost unfailingly kind; most importantly he is a character that it is exceptionally easy to relate to.
Other characters pepper the boy’s story, and as we gain insight to both his past and his present they come into clearer focus. His friends and parents are beautifully drawn, particularly his mother who is at times nothing less than chilling and whose actions pose question after question. A shout out must go to the charming Tomasz, a character who injects both humour and pathos into More Than This and leaps from the page with his imperfect yet ambitious English, his huge heart and his terrible secret.
More Than This is incredibly skilled storytelling in terms of both plot and world-building as well as in its ideology. The world that the boy inhabits is palpably real. Claustrophobic layers of dust, the disturbing image of a screaming horse, a terrifyingly silent prison, sleek black coffins and the deeply inhuman, helmeted Driver; none of it should make sense – yet is falls together effortlessly into a truly unique and sinister landscape that is as full of every day familiarity as it is disconcertingly alien. Within this world, the boy’s story unfolds slowly while Ness quietly beavers away in the background, creating a parallel tale, refusing to dovetail the separate strands until very late in the day. Each time the outcome seems clear, Ness turns things around. The ending is satisfying, yet ambiguous. And it works perfectly.
More Than This will leave readers with questions and it seems that this might be exactly the point. In his own clever way, Patrick Ness is encouraging us to think about Big Things. His book demands that the reader think about choices, free will and whether the grass is ever really greener. Ness also plays heavily on the idea of physical reality versus mental reality and leaves us to figure our what it means all on our own. There’s a bit of the old Dumbledore about Ness in this writerly persona, in that he left this reader pondering whether just because something is in your head, does that make it any less real. And vice versa. Patrick Ness is a writer who has picked up every major prize in children’s literature and one suspects that More Than This will garner him a few more. Yet this is a story that isn’t just for Young Adults but rather for all adults. It will remain with readers long after they have finished it and is certainly the stand out book of 2013. Highly, highly recommended.
This review was brought to you by Splendibird. More Than This is available in both physical and e-book versions now but we recommend the rather gorgeous hardback. Thank you to Walker Books for providing us with this title to review.