Review: More Than This by Patrick Ness
By Judy Digby
I feel like starting by saying, ‘Stop reading or listening to this now if you haven’t read the book’. It is so cleverly written that I don’t want to spoil it for anyone; to interfere with that delicious interaction with a new text, trying to understand at your own pace and in your own way, consuming it because you want to know what happens. There is a twist to the tale, or a flipping of conception but I am not sure if that really is the spoiler. It is the masterful way the book unfolds that gave me so much enjoyment, both in reading the story and in admiration for the author.
Patrick Ness balances and interweaves the storylines from both ‘lives’ and each is compelling. He uses the simple device of italicising one strand, which avoids confusion; there is enough in the plot to engagingly puzzle the reader. Has Seth, the teenage protagonist, drowned and ended up in his own personal hell as he thinks, reliving painful memories, all alone? Intriguingly he still has a body and physical needs. He has woken up disconnected, which is significant, in a deserted yet familiar neighbourhood. It reminded me of a film with Will Smith in a post-apocalyptic New York where he looks through abandoned shops for supplies. But as Ness says in the interview accessed via the Carnegie Shadowing Site (well worth watching), waking up and being perhaps the last person on earth is ‘Such a great old science fiction trope’. He explains that it is a very apt analogy for the feeling of being completely alone that teenagers experience and it was how the book started taking shape for him.
I’ve cheated and I’ve gone online and I’ve heard what Ness says about his own book and now I can’t forget it. I suppose I should have been concentrating on the text. The book itself is partly about our reliance on the internet. ‘The danger of online is that it feels like life. But it’s not life. It feels like the world but it’s not the world. It’s a part of the world.’ Ness says in the interview. I wasn’t living vicariously in a second life, I was just curious about someone who could write such a powerful opening passage and develop a theme so skilfully.
The first few pages where the boy drowns, we do not know his name is Seth at that stage, seems so real. No-one comes back from death to write about it but it is so convincing. Ness describes the action in the third person and the sentences are sparse and shorn of grammatical conventions. Later in the book it becomes clear that the drowning was suicide and Seth is leading up to it again on page 168. There is a moment later in the book where the drowning is described again and where Seth feels a surge of power and he contemplates the choice. As he gets out of his depth Seth changes his mind but it is too late, and then he wakes up and he is not free, has not forgotten all pain.
In the dystopian adventure story in the England he used to know Seth meets Regine and Tomasz. Both have also died violently, by damage to their necks, the site of connection. The three protect and help each other in a way his friends in America and his family did not. There is a Terminator figure, the Driver, who is after them but turns out to be a caretaker, programmed to heal.
In the italicised story Seth has been in love with another boy. Their privacy is invaded by photographs being shared online and then he loses his friends and is isolated and bullied at school. What makes his life really unbearable is when he hears that his relationship with Gudmund was not as exclusive as he had believed. Within his family he is neglected and made to feel guilty for something that had happened to his younger brother Owen years before. Later, Seth, with Regine’s help, comes to understand things from his fallible parents’ point of view too, and to see that his friend H may have been trying to help in a way. Tomasz helps him to see that it wasn’t his fault that his brother was abducted and that it was his mother’s job to protect them and the murderer was the one responsible for Owen’s death. Life is messy, but that’s the way it is and you have to accept it, Ness seems to be saying.
I was carried along by the protagonist’s search for answers and I too was questioning what was going on and which was the real life. In a deep sense it is a ‘book about asking’ and probably about not being able to know about certain things and having to live with it. As Ness reminds us in his interview, nobody can really know about life after death, for example.
If I were to continue studying the text in more depth, which I feel it certainly deserves, I would be looking to see if it is underpinned by a transformative utopianism, the dystopia of the spoilt world and the coffin lives teaching by negative example. This critical approach is advocated by Bradford, Mallan, Stephens and McCallum (2008, 2011) in New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature . They suggest that ‘utopian and dystopian tropes carry out important social, cultural, and political work by challenging and reformulating ideas about power and identity, community, the body, spatio-temporal change, and ecology. ‘ (p2) and these themes run through Ness’s text. As Bradford et al. point out, (Ch. 8) in the 21st century, many of the binary concepts by which we figure out what being human means no longer apply and More Than This certainly develops the debate. But for me it is more visceral than that, or more emotionally compelling; it is about Seth and how he feels, how he overcomes his fears and finds things out and tries to make things better, how he ends up being ‘ready’ and plans to ‘go in swinging’. There is an atmosphere or mood to the book, which Ness says he was aiming for, feeling it himself in the Peter Gabriel song from which he took the title. It bleeds into real life by not being rounded off as a creation with an ending, although it is, of course, just a story.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.