Reader’s Journal: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go seemed to be everywhere I looked at the end of last year. When I was making my list of Young Adult titles to read this year, this was the first thing on my list because I had read so many wonderful reviews. So did it live up to the hype? Well…

Yes. Yes, I believe it did, and I’ll tell you why, but first I want to discuss something else, and that is this book’s categorization as YA. I worry that not enough people will read this book because it’s classified as YA, when really, if it were possible to have an “All Ages” category, this would definitely be on the list (along with The Hunger Games, The Book Thief, and Hate List, all YA titles I think adults would enjoy—and benefit from—reading). Then again, I wonder if this book were not YA, would it have picked up the loyal (and worthy) fans it has to date, or would it be another great book lost in a sea of mediocre crap (I am looking at you, Jodie Picoult and James Patterson), or dismissed for being a genre novel?

The thing about The Knife of Never Letting Go: it’s quite dark, and also quite violent. The main protagonists are twelve years old, but they are like few twelve-year-olds one is likely to meet in real life. Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown. When the story opens, he has a month to go before he turns thirteen, the age at which he becomes a man. In Prentisstown, the men suffer from a disease called the Noise that makes them able to hear each other’s thoughts. There are no women in Prentisstown; the same disease that brought the Noise has killed them all. Prentisstown is a bleak place, ruled by loneliness and a sort of submerged violence.

Todd Hewitt is wandering through the marshes on the outskirts of town with his dog Manchee when he comes across something odd—a pocket of silence. It’s this pocket of silence that becomes the impetus for a chain of events that will drive Todd away from Prentisstown, fleeing with Manchee in order to save his own life. On his journey, Todd learns the truth about Prentisstown and the New World where he lives, and becomes a man on his own in ways he never expected.

As far as the plot is concerned, that’s about all I am willing to reveal. I will tell you this: you may very likely shed tears. I did, and I am not much of a crier. This is a lonely and difficult book in many ways. I’m not a parent, but I think this would be a terrific book for a family to read together, because it offers a lot for discussion, and for more sensitive kids, it would help give them an outlet to discuss heavier parts of the book without having to run through a plot synopsis to explain why they were upset by it. I don’t know why I am so sensitive to this, and I am not saying that kids shouldn’t read it—but it’s a lot like Lord of the Rings in the sense that different kids will probably be ready for this material at different ages. Remember, YA is not a rating system: it’s a marketing classification only—which brings me full circle. This book might even be a bit much for some adults, but it’s worth the read. Like any great author of dystopian fiction, Ness explores many of society’s constructs—our need to be connected; the overwhelming availability of information; our confessional society; gender roles and the communication gaps between men and women, just to name a few—in an original way. There are no lectures, no heavy-handed narrative sections. The book is full of action, right up to its heart-stopping end, which of course is not really the end, but the “to be continued” before The Ask and the Answer, the second book in the trilogy.

Another thing that struck me about this book is the way Ness uses language. Giving a character an accent or a dialect can sometimes seem like a gimmick, as can funky fonts or strange little stylistic twists such as paragraphs that almost start to read more like lists than narrative, but Ness makes everything work. Todd has a very distinct way of speaking (although honestly, I kept hearing an Irish accent in my head) that adds realistically to who he is. When he hears Noise, it’s represented in the book in different fonts. Animals talk. Given everything the reader learns about the New World and what happened when humans arrived, all of this makes sense for the story, which simply shows its strength.

Excerpt:

Cuz me as the almost man looks up into that town, I can hear the 146 men who remain. I can hear every ruddy last one of them. Their Noise washes down the hill like a flood let loose right at me, like a fire, like a monster the size of the sky come to get you cuz there’s nowhere to run…And them’s just the words, the voices talking and moaning and singing and crying. There’s pictures, too, pictures that come to yer mind in a rush, no matter how much you don’t want ’em, pictures of memories and fantasies and secrets and plans and lies, lies, lies. Cuz you can lie in the Noise, even when everyone knows what yer thinking, you can bury stuff under other stuff, you can hide it in plain sight, you just don’t think it clearly or convince yerself that the opposite of what yer hiding is true and then who’s going to be able to pick out from the flood what’s real water and what’s not going to get you wet?

Men lie, and they lie to theirselves worst of all.

Nymeth has a wonderful review of The Knife of Never Letting Go on her blog (which includes some spoilers that you can skip if you wish), as well as links to many other wonderful bloggers who’ve reviewed it as well.

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6 comments

  1. The style seems like it might be a bit of a deterrent to me, but the plot sounds fascinating- I’m interested in gendercides in fiction at the moment, I have to say!

    I think YA classification is more to distinguish it from children’s literature than anything else. Personally, it doesn’t deter me from picking it up, but it does me a general sense of the writing style and such if it’s not a standout book in the genre. I’m a bit frustrated with the idea that if the protagonist is of a certain age, it has to be a YA book, like you are, I have to say.

  2. Lit. Omnivore, you get used to the style quickly. Generally that kind of thing is a detractor for me, but it never gets in the way of the story, and in fact when later characters are introduced, it makes more sense to have the differentiation. As for the YA conundrum, so far the books I have read have such authentic voices for young people, as opposed to some literary fiction where children and young adults sound like types (bratty, precocious, etc.)…which seems to support the idea that if a book is about a young person, it must not be taken too seriously, or else viewed through some ironic adult lens. I am especially annoyed by smart-mouth, wisecracking kids in books and movies who sound like tiny comedians. The more I think about it, the more it bothers me, because it takes away anything real from young people. I’ll stop before I write another entire post here in reply to your comment! 🙂

  3. Glad you enjoyed it. The Ask and the Answer is (I think!) even better – though I have seen a few people who thought it suffered from second-book syndrome. But the cliffhanger is even tenser in that one, so it might really be worth waiting to read it until the third one’s out. The wait is killing me!!

  4. Jenny, I am excited to get to the next one. The copy I got from the library actually had the first chapter of the next book as a teaser, but I decided to wait and start fresh with the book itself.

  5. I have this on my TBR and hope to get to it this year. I try not to look at categorization when picking my reading but I can see how it can be a deterrent for some. A lot of YA deals with adult situations, sometimes better than other books that are not YA. The Book Thief was an amazing book and when I finished I had trouble thinking of it as YA. It was just that good. I agree that we might be better of with an all ages category for books like this.

  6. Justbookreading, I agree with the idea that some YA books deal with adult situations better than “adult” fiction. I hope you can get to this–it definitely falls into that category of a book that achieves something beyond what one might think a YA book could.

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