More Than This by Patrick Ness
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
Patrick Ness doesn’t hold back. His earlier novel, A Monster Calls, dealt with a young boy attempting to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness, and its clarity of vision and controlled writing could drive a truck through your heart. The first pages of his most recent novel, More Than This, are a brutal, horrific description of a boy’s death. Seth is drowning. He’s 17, he’s strong and he tries to fight the water but he is too far from the shore and he cannot get enough air in his lungs. He “feels a terrible yearning in his chest as he aches, fruitlessly, for more.” Seth begins to understand that he will die alone, here, today, just as he is slammed into “killingly hard rocks.” There’s no getting away from the urgent vortex of Ness’ story — More Than This is immediately riveting and eventually devastating.
Seth’s death is not the end, of course, but not in the way you would expect. The rest of the story isn’t all flashbacks to his past life, but what happens after Seth drowns and wakes up in what appears to be a silent, abandoned version of his childhood family home, a home he remembers his family leaving far behind in an attempt to run from an unnamed tragedy concerning his younger brother. Seth is alive, or so it seems, thirsty, alone and covered in strange, wet bandages. The house “sits there, waiting for him, a memory asking to be re-entered.” Everything inside is coated in layers and layers of dust, “so thick it is like an extra cloth draped over everything.” In the neighbourhood, Seth can find no signs of life, and other than overgrown vegetation, there is only a “quiet so deep he can hear his heart beating in his chest.” It is then he remembers that he died, and that this may well be a “hell built exactly for him. A hell where he would be alone. Forever. He’s died, and woken up in his own, personal hell.”
Whether this is hell or purgatory remains uncertain to both the reader and to Seth, who questions his whereabouts and even his “reality,” even as he manages to traverse the local landscape, finding an entire village empty of life, yet just as he remembers it — shops, homes, even the train station all lie abandoned. As he attempts to find food and shelter, he finds himself having incredibly vivid dreams or visions of what he remembers of his life before drowning — scenes that are essentially an account of everything that lead up to Seth’s death. A terrible tragedy had taken place, something that changed his younger brother and left him a little bit broken, forcing Seth and his family to leave England in an attempt to start afresh in a small town in America where Seth makes new friends and develops a deep love for one of them, until love and jealousy tear them all apart.
Why has Seth ‘woken’ back in the village his family had left? What has happened to his parents and his brother, to his friends? Seth has no answers, and is further confused by the appearance of a threatening figure driving a black van, relentlessly tracking him. Meeting two other people — a young Polish boy, Tomasz, and a teenage girl, Regine — does not help clear any of Seth’s confusion, and while his two new friends do appear to know more than he does, they too have nothing more than guesses to explain the vacant, silent world around them.
“People see stories everywhere,” writes Ness in Regine’s voice. “That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true. We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.” This is just what Seth attempts to do. He’s a fairly solipsistic protagonist, constantly questioning if anything other than him exists at all, attempting to understand the nature of the world around him, questioning his “reality” but never bogged down by the questions shrouding his life. “Keep moving, he tells himself again. Don’t stop.” If you’re looking for a proactive, thoughtful and intelligent young adult protagonist with a good heart, a sense of humour and a strong desire to change what he sees as wrong, you need look no further than Seth. This is what Young Adult fiction needs — more protagonists like Seth, more writers like Patrick Ness who do not patronise their readers.
Those concerned about existential angst and philosophical themes in More Than This need not worry — this is an incredibly readable and immediately captivating book which often reads like a thriller, with plenty of twists, turns, tension and elegantly crafted reveals. Ness writes with a lean, sharp prose and taut pacing that never flags, no matter what the questions being asked are, no matter what the realities being questioned are. It is hard to talk about More Than This without giving away any of Ness’ slow-burn reveals. There are many questions to be answered, and not all of them are explained away, but that does not take away from the strength of this book.
Ness has won the Carnegie Medal twice, for Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls. He’s won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the 2008 Tiptree Award for The Knife of Never Letting Go, and the Costa Book Award for The Ask and the Answer. His last novel for adults, The Crane Wife, was a tender and evocative retelling of the Japanese folk tale. With More Than This, Patrick Ness proves he is capable of dealing with heavy, important ideas in Young Adult fiction with a confident narrative that begs to be read again and again.