Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Published: Candlewick Press  (2009), Walker (2008)

Awards: Booktrust Teenage Prize, Guardian Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award
Series: Book 1 of Chaos Walking

The Book:

“Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too.

With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn't she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd's gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.”
~From barnesandnoble.com

I’m reading this book in preparation for reading the Arthur C. Clarke award nominee Monsters of Men, which is the final book of the Chaos Walking trilogy.  I’m also reading it in order to participate in the 2011 Book Club over at the Calico Reaction book review blog. The novel does end on a cliffhanger that leads in to the second installment in the series, but the overall story was self-contained enough that it didn’t leave me feeling dissatisfied.

My Thoughts:

The New World was a very interesting setting for the story.  It’s an alien planet, colonized by a religious group that seems vaguely similar to the Amish.  The Noise germ is the main player that shapes human life on the New World.  Ness shows the tangle of men’s minds as word pictures throughout the book, and even the animals broadcast their simple thoughts.   Manchee, Todd’s dog, is surprisingly endearing with his adoring childish statements, and even the squirrels, gators, and more exotic alien animals can’t help leaking their intentions to the world.

While there is a lot of focus on the Noise in the book, there is actually somewhat less on the adaptations of New World societies to the mind-rending churn of thoughts pouring out of all the men.  It added an interesting snarl to gender relations, which is something I think that this series might continue to explore.  I enjoyed the occasional glimpse as to how different groups of people dealt with the problem, and I hope that the later installments will allow a closer inspection of the different types of settler communities. 

The plot of the novel is very straightforward.  Todd and the girl are fleeing the evil men of Todd’s hometown.  On the way, they learn more about the New World society, humanity’s place on the world, and what it means to ‘be a man’.  I get the feeling that this series is going to be a little like The Hunger Games in that the first installment has a very simple, straightforward story, but the sequels take on much more.  However, even with that feeling, there were times that the plot felt too implausible or contrived.  Frequently, insanity was used to explain people’s actions, or information was arbitrarily withheld from the reader simply because the narrator wasn’t very good at expressing himself.

The narrator in question is Todd Hewitt, an illiterate, adolescent, farm boy.  He has a highly unique manner of expression that stomps all over traditional English grammar and spelling.  It was a little difficult to get into at first, but the similarity to southern US speech patterns (My home!  I miss my home!) ended up endearing Todd to me, despite his many flaws.  I’m not sure how relatable Todd’s manner of telling the story would be to someone who lacks my nostalgia factor.  

One thing I could not get over, which I mentioned above, was Todd’s occasional inability to adequately communicate the story.  There were several major examples of this, all of them when important plot information is revealed to Todd.  It seemed like just a cheap way of putting off telling the reader key information.  I would have preferred that there be a better reason than just the poor descriptive ability of the narrator.

Even beyond his communication skills, Todd could sometimes be a pretty infuriating protagonist.  I think it was meant to be a reflection of his upbringing, but he was very rude and completely lacking in curiosity.  It simply never occurs to him that someone could be thinking or feeling something that is not communicated to him telepathically.  As a result, he has never had to learn to read body or facial cues, or even to put himself in other people’s shoes. 

On the same line of thought, he also doesn’t seek or assimilate information very well.  This does makes sense, when you consider that he’s spent his whole life trying to ignore the flood of information from others. Thanks to this flaw, the reader can pretty much figure anything out dozens of chapters before Todd, and it’s a little frustrating waiting for the little guy to catch up. As a more direct consequence, Todd sometimes makes really horrible decisions based on his inadequate information.  Todd does grow and change throughout the story, however, and I think overcoming his weaknesses is going to be as much a part of his maturation as learning the truth behind the world on which he lives.

My Rating: 3/5

Overall, I’m glad to have read this novel, and I intend to read the rest of the series over the next few weeks.   I enjoyed the world Ness has created, and I constantly fluctuated between caring about and being really annoyed with the characters.  The a-grammatical prose might be a hindrance to enjoyment for some readers, but it didn’t bother me very much past the first few chapters.  The world was fascinating enough to help me forgive the weaknesses in plot construction, and I look forward to learning more in the books to come!

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