Friday, May 13, 2011

THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO

Review of THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by PATRICK NESS
(first in the CHAOS WALKING trilogy)

"The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say." And so begins the first book in the CHAOS WALKING trilogy, setting up a humorous tone of annoyance and unexpected insight. Savor this laugh at the beginning, because you might be crying by the end.

In Todd's world, you can hear everything anyone thinks in the form of "noise." This means a constant, overwhelming bombardment of words, fragments, and full sentences, not to mention images. Ness takes into account the politics of such a world and even when all thoughts can be heard, men still create techniques for deceit. I particularly loved the visual representation of noise on the page, and, in fact, wished for more.

My favorite character is Manchee, the aforementioned talking dog, whose dialogue mostly consists of frequent, single-line barks of "Todd?" that provide some much-needed comic relief. Giving animals voice often personifies them too much, but Manchee's limited vocabulary, simplistic fixations, and one-word sentences phrased as questions feel very dog-like. Watching Todd's relationship with his dog develop is especially moving. From the first page he doesn't seem all that fond of Manchee's constant company, even telling us that he never wanted a dog, but when complications emerge and Todd finds himself in surreal, terrifying situations, Manchee not only stays by his side but frequently jumps to his master's rescue at his own peril. This loyalty isn't lost on Todd who gradually shifts into speaking of Manchee with the increased affection he deserves.

Todd is not a hero, and I often struggled to like him. He makes mistakes in the book, and not little, justifiable mistakes, but ones that will force you to summon up all your understanding and empathy. At least he has clear virtues to balance his dark tendencies, unlike those who chase him, especially his archnemesis, Aaron, the brand of villain who not only borders on demented in his crazed obsession with pursing Todd, but the guy is near invincible!

This is an amazing book, so I felt disappointed when the author resorted to one of my pet peeves: withholding crucial information from the reader. Writers can pull this off in many situations: when the protagonist doesn't know the secret either, for instance, or sometimes even when the character learned information pre-novel, but when this technique isn't used to my satisfaction, I feel cheated. In this case, Todd learns two things early in the book where we read the conversation only in terms of his shocked reaction, but don't learn what he found out, even though he continues referencing his mortification at this terrible secret that he doesn't share. Part of the issue with this strategy is that the longer the author keeps the reader waiting, the better the secret needs to be when it's finally disclosed. By the time the big reveal rolled around in THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO (of course, near the end), I had long ago guessed as much and thought the secret must be something else. The world setup also begs a potential logic issue: if everyone in Todd's town knew of this dark secret, why did he never hear a whisper of it in anyone's noise? Additionally, the book ends on a huge cliffhanger, which falls into this same category of withholding information for increased suspense, because the ending cuts off right in the middle of a climatic scene, no doubt to encourage readers to buy the next book. These disappointments were a shame, because the book doesn't need such tactics given how well the plot addresses strong emotions and creates intriguing hooks and dilemmas.

Even though cliffhangers and secrets detracted from the power of the story, I still really enjoyed THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, and it should be said that those aspects are a minor part of the finished product. Handling emotions in improbable situations poses a big challenge, but Ness creates real characters, flawed and layered, and each dealing with trauma in their own way.

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