We had a very quiet and lazy weeked, which we weren’t very happy about, but which did at least afford us both some time to read. Anna’s been reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest, Nocturnes, of which more may be said on this blog at some future date. My book, meanwhile, was Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, which, as Niall Harrison has said before me, barely needs any more praise: winner of the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Guardian Award and the 2008 James Tiptree Jr. Award, and raved about by everyone from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Nicholas Tucker, its brilliance is already widely acknowledged.
Never let it be said I come too early to parties.
The story of Todd, the last boy to come of age in a town full of men, The Knife of Never Letting Go is set on a colonised planet which, Todd has been told, was at some point before he was born riven by a war between the arriving humans and the indigenous Spackle. His history lessons teach Todd that, in an attempt to win the war, the Spackle released a virus into the ecosystem which killed the women and made mens’ innermost thoughts audible to all those around them. As a result, Todd’s home of Prentisstown is a testosterone-fuelled, all-male enclave of endless Noise – the term coined to describe the telepathic fizz which emanates from every man’s mind.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is, as Martin Lewis pointed out on Strange Horizons, “an archetypal bildungsroman” – and much of Todd’s development is driven by the discoveries he makes about his world as his experience of it widens beyond what he has been told by the inhabitants of Prentisstown. To describe the book’s plot, then, spoils the book – and it’s such a very good book, so well told and executed, that I’ll refrain. Suffice to say that, as Todd moves outwards from his male-centred world, Ness is simply brilliant at deepening, broadening and altering the way in which his central character interacts with his world and those who live in it. This is really the heart of the book – Todd’s slow dawning that people exist outside of him, outside of his conceptions and understandings – and this growth is beautifully and subtly done.
The novel is characterised by this spirit of inquiry, and by a refusal to condescend to the book’s putative Young Adult audience: if at times Ness has coyness forced upon him by the conventions of his market (Todd repeatedly ‘effs’ – and equally repeatedly reminds us that, “I don’t say ‘eff’, I say what ‘eff’ stands for”), then in his own considered way he also takes few prisoners in his weighing of such serious themes as misogyny, racism, sexuality and violence. On this last point, Adam Roberts has quibbled that the book is too violent, which puts him closer to the Daily Mail end of the spectrum than I might previously have thought. Certainly the book has a lot of beatings and stabbings, and I do have sympathy with Roberts’s view that violence powers Ness’s narrative, and that it is this more than the existence or quantity of that violence which makes it questionable. Ness’s defense that “teenagers have always sought violent fiction” just about works for me, though: not only would it simply be daft to ignore its power, but violence drives Todd’s narrative because it fuels the culture he has grown up in, the criteria by which those who have given him his understanding of the world judge a man. His story is a broadening out of this position – and if, by the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, violence has still not quite been abandoned … then, well, there’re two more books for that.
All this put me in mind of Black Man, another book powered by violence which, it seems to me, tries to explore much the same ground as The Knife of Never Letting Go. Somehow, Ness’s subversion of his book’s own assumptions struck me as better wrought – a more convincing achievement of dissonance between form and content. It also executed, I think, a far more satisfying – because far more rigorous – rug-pull than The Island at the End of the World – which sought, too, to look at similar issues of religious mania, misogyny and gender to those tackled by Ness. His book may be a mite over-long, and, given that it is almost 500 pages of Todd being chased around, it may have also set itself a structurally shallow hurdle to vault; but its intelligence, empathy and sheer event-laden readability far outweight these tiny niggles – Todd’s voice in particular is a thorough joy. In short, here is a book with real heft. Naturally, The Ask and the Answer shall be purchased very shortly.