Friday, April 27, 2012

Colonisation. War. Terrorism. Gender Issues. Slavery. Communication: more than 'young adult'' fiction - book review of the Chaos Walking Trilogy (Patrick Ness)

Patrick Ness first hit my radar some years ago the book 'The Crash of Hennington', a curious and quirkily enjoyable narrative about a town that lives with a 'crash' of Rhinos amidst them, a crash that frequently charges through the town reaping a level of destructiveness exceeded by the humans who live there.

I was a good way through reading this trilogy - Chaos Walking - before I rediscovered that previous encounter with Ness in my memory bank, but it made sense.  For here was a writer whose construction of worlds, no matter how odd, seemed nevertheless to be perfectly human and recognisable even as they vibrated with otherness.

The trilogy may be targeted to a young adult readership, but no-one is dumbed down to here in this complex tale of distinctly adult themes and content.  The two central young adult figures - Todd Hewitt and Viola Eade - are placed at the centre of  narratives that take in gender debates, war, slavery, and colonisation.  Problems around communication and language are central to its narrative.

From the first page we enter a vibrant world: Todd's thoughts are 'audible'... and so are those of his dog.  In fact all thoughts of men (and boys) are audible at all times, and so are those of  the animals (even though these may be more straightforward and practical, less emotional and harsh). 

But there are no women in Todd's world, at least to start with - until he encounters Viola: silent, unknowable Viola.

Because whilst women can hear the thoughts of men and animals, the thoughts of women cannot be heard.

The synopses on the back of each volume give a certain insight into the developing narrative of this other world, which has suitably ambiguous villains and heroes who struggle to be heroic.  What is important to note is that these are characters you will care about and feel for: not just the magnificently flawed Todd and Viola, but Ben, Wilf, Hildy, Lee, Simone and others.  Even the violence of Mistress Coyle and the deeply vile Mayor Prentiss are characterised with sufficient detail and ambiguity to be able to see how actions can be justified in the most horrific of circumstances.  Not all characters are good - even those who are 'good' do bad things - but it is a mark of Ness's quality of writing that his narratives do not shy away from ambivalence and horror.

There are many deaths that will move and bereave the reader as they work through the approximately 1600 pages that make up this trilogy: they're worth every second of your reading.  And by the end... you'll have reached the end and will project forward the necessary, appropriate resolution.

I've still got another of Ness's titles to read - A Monster Calls, which was developed from an idea by writer Siobhan Dowd (who sadly died before she could bring the idea to fruition: "She had the characters, a detailed premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time".).  The text is beautifully - and scarily - illustrated by Jim Kay and I'm definitely looking forward to engaging with that.

1 comment:

Jane Henry said...

We got into these a couple of years ago, though I still have to read the third one. I do love them - I like the shouting in people's heads stuff for eg, and Mayor Prentiss is a great baddie. However, I have a major caveat, which is there is far too much running from one place to another, journeying in a way that doesn't move the narrative on in any meaningful way. You've reminded me I must read the last one though, I need to find out what happened!