First published on 27th October, 2013 in The Star
NESA, my friend and fellow-book junkie, said recently that the right books always come along just when they’re needed: “I wonder how they know?”
More Than This by Patrick Ness was the right book for me last week. I received a review copy a month ago but only started reading it when I remembered the review (which you’re reading now) was due. Incidentally, Ness’ A Monster Calls is always the right book. It makes me cry. And cry. And cry. And it always feels so good, so cathartic.
More Than This … it turned out to be an unexpected antidote to a psychic punch in the solar plexus. It’s about a boy, Seth, who drowns and then wakes up in the house he lived in as a child. At one point he wonders if he’s in hell: Something happened to Seth when he was eight years old and living in that house, in England. It was something terrible – so terrible that the place might well qualify as the setting for Seth’s own, personal hell.
We learn, chapter by chapter, about Seth’s life in that house. We also learn about his life as a teenager living in an American suburb with his parents and younger brother. As we read on, we learn that what happened in the house in England led to the family relocating to America. We learn more about Seth, about his relationship with his parents and his brother, and his close friendship with three schoolmates, H, Monica and Gudmund. We learn about Seth’s guilt. We learn about his secrets. And we learn how he died and why he died: He drowned, yes, but there’s more.
The small details of Seth’s life (lives) add up slowly, with every page turn. A picture forms and we begin to understand … but then suddenly, everything changes. It’s like someone (Ness) has pressed a reset button of some sort. What the hell, I heard myself say at that point. I was intrigued but also frustrated and little sceptical. Really? Really? No, surely not!
At first glance More Than This is about the afterlife. Well, it is, even on close inspection, but at some point it fools you into thinking it isn’t because the ways that it is about the afterlife are wholly unexpected. It pretends to be about other things – it distracts you, makes you worry about Seth and wonder about his life, and all the time it’s actually sneakily helping you work out your thoughts about what comes next – after life, after death. In these ways, More Than This blows other YA books that tackle the same subject right out of the water.
The title echoes those questions many of us have: Is there life after death? Is there more? Is this it? Seth’s story, and his journey and personal epiphany provide him with answers to these questions as well as others that he can’t at first articulate but that make up the knotted threads of his existence – threads that lead him to this place in his past, this place which is also, it transpires, where his beginning, or a beginning, at any rate, is located.
I would just like to mention here that there are science fiction and dystopian elements in this story and although I didn’t mind the latter, the former aspect of the book didn’t do much for me. I was unconvinced by the details … or by the lack of them. I felt that too many questions were raised and they left niggly doubts that bothered me but only as far as the nuts and bolts of the book went. It didn’t affect its core – its themes and ideas.
If A Monster Calls is about saying good bye, accepting death and moving on, More Than This is about embracing life and its myriad possibilities, and being encouraged and energised by these possibilities. I love these lines from the book: “He’s uncertain what’s going to happen next. But he is certain that that’s actually the point.”
I don’t find myself wondering about whether there’s more after death, but in recent difficult times I did wonder if there was more to life. The problem is getting stuck, mired in the hopelessness of a present that just won’t seem to do the decent thing, bugger off and turn into the past. More Than This reminded me that time passes, even the worst disappointments cease to hurt, and that the future is there, delightfully unknown, but just waiting to be grabbed with both hands, and swung from like the best glittery chandelier there ever was.
More that this? Damn right!