bookgazing: (i heart books)
bookgazing ([personal profile] bookgazing) wrote2012-01-23 10:43 pm

'The Knife of Never Letting Go' - Patrick Ness

I meant to join in the Calico Reaction chat about ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ by Patrick Ness, when it ran last year, but even though I’d finished it in plenty of time I didn’t get around to it. I’ll suggest that you go over to her livejournal and read her thoughts on this book, because you’re going to get a lot more information from her (note there are spoilers). I felt the same way she did about a lot of things (loved Ness’ way with creating character voices, the creation of The Noise and the slow reveal that this is a sci-fi novel), but I felt really differently about the emotional impact of this book, but let me start with a quick discussion about the beginning of the book.

This is one of the very rare reviews where I’ll be missing out plot synopsis and going straight into the issues that I need to talk about. As a consequence there will be spoilers and a lack of plot information.

I think Amanda mentioned being put off by the toilet humour on page one and to be honest that kept me from starting this series for ages, because it sounded a little too silly to be my kind of thing. Imagine my shock to find myself giggling as I read this first page exchange:

‘The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.
“Need a poo, Todd.”
“Shut up, Manchee.”
“Poo. Poo, Todd.”
“I said shut it.”'

I kept replaying it and still finding it funny. I still find it funny now, not because it involves toilet humour, but because the comic composition is spot on. There’s a prelude which encourages you to anticipate what kind of stupid thing the dog is going to say. There’s a ‘not at the dinner table’ statement which encourages shocked surprise and unwitting laughter, but it’s kept short and quick, so you almost wonder if you read it right, ‘Hey, did he just say...?' There’s a snappish retort and there’s insistent repetition from Manchee who is oblivious to how annoying he’s being. Page one and they’re established as a crotchety double act. It’s a little gem of humour and with just a few words, Ness illuminates the place Manchee and Todd’s relationship begins from. I knew I’d be hooked on Todd and Manchee’s voices throughout the book.

I’d seen a lot of talk about Manchee’s death scene breaking hearts before I started ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’, but I just didn’t feel it, even though I loved spending time with Manchee. By the time the book reaches Manchee’s death I was totally desensitised to the emotion that scene was supposed to evoke. I didn’t fail to react because I loved Manchee any less, or because I didn’t believe how Todd and Manchee’s relationship had developed. I just, couldn’t feel anymore because Ness had over played his emotional hand with me.

Ness’ plot relies on tension that is created by sets of negative incidents, which make Todd and Viola mobilise and positive incidents, which allow them to rest and learn. Something bad happens and Todd and Viola find themselves running for their lives, but then something good happens, for example they a town that will shelter them/ At the end of a pair of negative/positive events the cycle begins again, with a new (and often even worse) negative event, which disrupts the character’s ability to rest at peace, like the army tracing them and destroying the town. And so on and on and on throughout the novel. As the book continues, the negative incidents escalate in seriousness, as Ness builds to what he wants to be an emotionally violent climax that will both devastate his reader and convince them they have to know what happens in the next book.

The trouble is, I found that the shock of the characters being lulled into feeling secure, only to be shocked into action when their safety turns out to be false is a trick that can only be used on me so many times, before it becomes wearying and repetitive. The book slips into a regular pattern which is kind of like reading a novelised version of the ‘Fortunately, Unfortunately’ writing game. Once I could see the pattern, I found that when Todd and Viola had to run from danger fro the third, or the fourth, or the fifth time, I was less emotionally affected. Predictability isn’t usually a huge factor in my own connection with a book (you can almost always tell who is going to end up together, in a novel with a romance, but I have no problem connecting with relationships in novels) but I had real problems with the repeating pattern in ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’. Its structure of fear and relief kind of reminded me of the way slasher movies work. It is a really effective structure to employ, but it just didn’t work for me here, maybe because the length of the novel means the trick is repeated too many times before it reaches the end. I’m not quite sure, but I think seeing so many scary, bad things jump on Viola and Todd lessened my response to what they went through and cut me off from the novel a little bit. When Manchee died I was braced for it and didn’t let it get to my heart. I’m afraid you have to trick me to make me cry Mr Ness and your trick was played too early and too often.

So, by the time the novel got to Manchee’s death I couldn’t feel the real consequences of the painful things that happened in this novel anymore. I put a lot of that down to the fact that Ness’ villain Aaron just.wouldn’t.die. Every time I thought he had to be dead, he’d reappear (again, like the villain in a slasher film). It began to feel like even really life threatening encounters had limited consequences in Ness’ world. At one point Aaron is dragged under water by a gator and he still survives. So when Manchee was shown dying, I had a hard time believing he had actually died at first and when I finally accepted that he wasn’t coming back I was too far away from his death to really go back and unpack the emotions I would have felt about being there, watching his neck get snapped.

I realise I’ve gone really negative and possibly unnecessarily specific in this post, because I had to talk about this unintentional emotional blocking, as it’s what really kept me from LOVING this book. I want to write balanced reviews, but sometimes I just have to screw that and treat my book blog as a journal where I can talk at length about the issue I really want to get off my chest because it is going around and around in my head.

So, alongside everything that I’ve said in this review please note the following caps lock: I LIKED SO MANY THINGS SO MUCH, I WANT TO READ THE NEXT BOOK VERY SOON (Oh um I actually ordered it after realising how true that caps locking was). I’m totally in the ‘Chaos Walking’ fan club. Hopefully, I’ll reread the whole trilogy once I reach the end and then, prepared for an emotional disconnect, I’ll have time to come back and talk about all the interesting technical things Ness does in this book. I’d also really like to talk about the growing relationships between Violet and Todd, Todd and Manchee , as well as voice, but for now I’ll just have to refer you back to Calico Reaction’s post and the comments everyone left there (this is a case of ‘do read the comments’). Cross your fingers that I finish the trilogy soon, so I can get down to rereading it before 2015.

Other Reviews
Iris On Books
things mean a lot
books I done read
Jenny’s Books
Calico Reaction
nymeth: (Default)

[personal profile] nymeth 2012-01-23 10:57 pm (UTC)(link)
First of all, I totally get that you're in the fan club despite the emotional disconnect. But but but! I think you'll like The Ask and the Answer SOOOO much more. The structure is completely different and the way it handles narrative tension is much more sophisticated. I can't wait to hear what you think :D
nymeth: (Default)

[personal profile] nymeth 2012-01-23 11:08 pm (UTC)(link)
I saw you tweet it and was like, "yay! All the words" :D Don't worry, I'm queen of haven't-read-it-yet-but-SOON, so who am I to judge? For example, the Le Guin book I'll one day mail you back :P
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)

[personal profile] renay 2012-01-24 03:15 am (UTC)(link)
I remember reading this book before it got really popular and going "why haven't more people read this book!?" and then being full of regret when people did start to read it and had similar complaints and disliked it.

I definitely agree that Ness overplayed his hand a bit, especially toward the end. I found Manchee's death pretty awful because I didn't expect it, but less sad because of his death and more sad because of its impact on Todd and how it changes him (I believe there are many echoes of this in the next book).

You with The Ask and The Answer is like me with Monsters of Men, which I still haven't read. Oops.

myfriendamy: (Default)

[personal profile] myfriendamy 2012-01-24 06:37 am (UTC)(link)
Wow I am shocked you haven't read Monsters of Men!
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)

[personal profile] renay 2012-01-24 06:40 am (UTC)(link)
I read The Ask and the Answer and then, of course, when Monsters of Men dropped I was in full-on school mode and barely reading anything but academic material. The gap widened so much I couldn't remember anything from the second book, so to pick up Monsters of Men I would need to start over at the beginning. Guess who is super lazy?

[identity profile] 2012-01-24 09:19 am (UTC)(link)
I haven't read this yet (although I will because I own it) but I don't mind spoilers so I was quite happy to read your thoughts here. I feel exactly the same when authors jump up and down too hard on my emotional responses. I suppose all books manipulate their readers one way or another, but I don't like being made aware of the manipulation going on, and I can see that the structure here would make it obvious. Still, I will read both this and Hunger Games as I am so curious to see what the fuss is all about ! :)

(Anonymous) 2012-01-25 02:06 am (UTC)(link)
I agree about not being sure the dog wasn't going to come back, since Aaron just kept doing it, and about liking the way the Noise is shown. I read all three of these novels in short order, without too much stopping to think.

[identity profile] 2012-01-30 05:38 pm (UTC)(link)
It is interesting to read your response to the emotional bits. I am now questioning if I'm blind ;) I don't know, I do know I am very easy to emotionally-manipulate though, so I can have peace with my only loving this book. I do agree with Ana, that you'll probably like The Ask and the Answer more (it is my favourite of the three, I think).

(Anonymous) 2012-02-16 12:54 pm (UTC)(link)
I also felt completely manipulated/emotionally distanced by the structure/plot too! Unlike you, though, it left me with no interest in reading the rest of the trilogy or anything else by him.