Sunday, May 24, 2009

A noisy book

Patrick Ness's novel for young adults, The Knife of Never Letting Go, deserves all the praise that was heaped on it. Having known that it won the Guardian Children's Book Prize and the James Tiptree Prize and being shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Booktrust Award, I wonder why the book isn't creating as much a buzz here in Manila and in the US. Perhaps it's the brutal themes that make a lot of people uncomfortable. Or maybe it has something to do with the author's exploration of sensitive subjects such as war and gender clash.

The novel is indeed brutal, but I can't imagine it going a more conventional path. It's set in a world much unlike our own but with one significant difference -- in that world, all the men can hear each other's thoughts, which they call Noise. Todd Hewitt, the protagonist, thinks that it has always been this way, having been born into this effed up world. (Todd does use "eff" and "effing" a lot in the narrative but never the exact four-letter word.)

Todd lives in Prentisstown, a settlement where all the women have died and the men left go about their lives hearing one another's desires and dreams. But Todd feels that there's something wrong in Prentisstown. For one, the mayor and his posse seem to be preparing for something, as their Noise has taken on an urgent and more focused quality. The preacher has also been giving more and more cryptic messages to his faithful, as if foretelling a somewhat apocalyptic event in the near future. And the men seem to be keeping a close eye on Todd, for in a month he'll turn 13, the age when a boy officially becomes a man in Prentisstown.

One day, while in the outskirts of his village, Todd discovers a hole in the wall, a spot where there seems to be no Noise, and this space of quiet comes from a girl. When the men find out about this, Todd's foster parents, Ben and Cillian, sends Todd away immediately. He runs, taking his dog and the girl, Viola Eade.

The novel delivers and in a big way. Patrick Ness has written a novel for young adults that's bound to spark debate and discussion among its readers. Todd's questions become the reader's own: how come women hear men's thoughts without giving out Noise of their own, why did he have to flee his home, and why are there no women in Prentisstown when it's clear that other settlements are populated by both men and women? Of course, I wouldn't include any spoilers here, as reading the parts that answer these questions are very, very satisfying.

Receiving the James Tiptree Award is especially significant, as it's only given to a YA novel that explores gender issues effectively. In The Knife of Never Letting Go, Ness has added another dimension to gender differences and presents a case on how this difference is treated in two varying settings. With women being able to hear men's Noise, this premise presents a very unique dynamic on how Todd and Viola communicate throughout the story.

The writing style employed in The Knife of Never Letting Go can take getting used to. Being written in the first person, the language reflects Todd's lack of formal education (e.g., the novel's first sentence: The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say.). But this language adds a richness to the narrative, adding another layer of context making it more believable and meaningful. In a way, this is what makes the book succeed: our suspension of disbelief is maintained because Ness keeps all bases covered.

Read this book if
  1. You want a YA novel for thinking adults too.
  2. You feel people can hear your thoughts.
  3. You love the unexpected.