“Here is the boy, drowning” is the opening line of Patrick Ness’s confounding, riveting, philosophical and profoundly moving YA novel More Than This. If you are a regular visitor to The Ludic Reader then you know that I am a Ness fan. I have huge love for his novels A Monster Calls, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men.
More Than This was my pick for book club and we gathered on Feb 18th to discuss the novel over dinner. The discussion was rich with differing viewpoints; the dinner itself was only moderately successful. My book club – despite the fact that three of its members, myself included, are teachers – doesn’t normally choose YA fiction. The only other book we’ve chosen from the YA canon was Marcus Zusak’s amazing novel, The Book Thief. In any case, as I was reading I had a feeling that my choice might not float everyone’s boat. Even I had trouble wrapping my head around Ness’s ‘big picture.’
More Than This is the story of a boy who, in the novel’s riveting opening, drowns. And then he finds himself well, not dead.
He seems to be lying on a concrete path that runs through the front yard of a house, stretching from the sidewalk to a front door behind him.
The house is not his own.
And there’s more wrong than that.
For 163 pages, Seth (as the boy eventually remembers) is alone in a post-apocalyptic town in England. This is, as it turns out, the town where he grew up before he moved to America. Bits and pieces of his story come back to him when he dreams. For example, he remembers something horrible happening to his younger brother, Owen, something for which his mother never forgave him. He remembers Gudmund, a boy for whom he has more than friendly affection. He remembers his other friends, H and Monica. As his previous life filters back to him in dreams, he tries to survive in this new wasteland.
And then he meets Regine and Thomasz. And the Driver, a creepy faceless virtually indestructible being whose sole purpose seems to be to try to catch the three teenagers. And how can there be just them? What has happened to the world?
One member of book club was certain that Seth was suffering from a psychotic break and while her argument is certainly plausible, I am happier taking Seth’s dilemma at face value. I think it’s a more interesting book if we believe in what he sees and experiences. Otherwise, it just feels like Bobby Ewing in the shower.
But believing what Seth does also proves problematic. I’ll admit: I was often confused. But that didn’t negate my love of Seth or his new friends. And, ultimately, I think More Than This has interesting things to say about the myopic lens through which teenagers view their lives. As Seth’s past and present converge, he starts to understand how his story, the story of his life, is unknowable, but that “whatever is forever certain is that there’s always more.”
The last couple of pages of More Than This are outstanding. Some members of my group felt that the novel was 150 pages too long, but I disagree. I think the novel packs a terrific punch and Seth’s journey from self-centered adolescence to manhood is memorable and magnificent.
I continue to be filled with admiration for Ness and look forward to talking about this novel with my students. But make no mistake – this novel has lots to offer thoughtful readers of any age.