Friday, February 4, 2011

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The time has finally come for me to review The Knife of Never Letting Go, dystopian wonder-book beloved by my blogging friends across the world. I'm not sure why I've been putting it off this long except maybe it's because while I did like it, I didn't love it with quite the fiery passion that everybody seems to love it. This is not to say that I didn't read it through quite quickly and then immediately set about acquiring the other two books in the series.

I think I'm presently deciding to go the more candid route with this review since my thoughts about the book just don't seem to be coalescing into a coherent whole. I mean, we've all read an intelligent, convincing review of The Knife of Never Letting Go, haven't we? Well, now we can read mine. Beware of rampant tense changes and me chattering at you in all three "persons" (1st, 2nd, and 3rd).

So, Todd Hewitt is our main character. Up until the opening pages of the book when things have already begun to go horribly even more awry than usual, Todd lives in the all male Prentisstown. Prentisstown is unique not only in the fact that it is without women but also in that all the men can hear each other's thoughts, an endless torrent of Noise of dubious truthfulness, that makes keeping secrets a challenge.

That's the thing, tho. Noise is noise. It's crash and clatter and it usually adds up to one big mash of sound and thought and picture and half the time it's impossible to make any sense of it at all. Men's minds are messy places and Noise is like the active, breathing face of that mess. It's what's true and what's believed and what's imagined and what's fantasized and it says one thing and a completely opposite thing at the same time and even tho the truth is definitely in there, how can you tell what's true and what's not when you're getting everything?

The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.

This challenge, however, is one that the many men of Prentisstown are meeting when it comes to Todd, the official last boy to become a man in Prentisstown. Everything's going along more or less as normal with Todd running errands and working on the farm of the two men who took him in when his parents died, Ben and Cillian. Then, one day Ben sends Todd and his faithful dog Manchee (who can talk) out to the swamp on the edge of town to pick some swamp apples (sounds yummy!). On this particular day in the swamp, everything changes. Todd discovers two things that he's always been lead to believe don't exist anymore: silence and a girl. Both things were supposed to have been destroyed by a long ago war with an alien race called Spackle. With these things popping up in his noise, Todd has become a danger to himself if he stays in Prentisstown any longer and is packed off with a rucksack full of supplies Ben already had packed and a journal his mother wrote that he can't read.

Suddenly Todd finds himself on the run with a girl who won't talk, a book that's supposed to help that his rudimentary reading skills renders useless, and years worth of carefully nurtured ignorance. Which is bad because, in Todd's new reality, a lot of people want him dead and he doesn't know why.

I think the biggest problem I had with The Knife of Never Letting Go is that it is so depressing which, oddly, is not usually a problem for me with books. There are no books that are too depressing for me, but this one dances on the line. Ness gives us a boy and a girl and a dog who we immediately sympathize with and root for as they face overwhelming odds against their even continuing to live. You are frustrated right along with Todd that he has essentially been booted out of his home for no reason he can understand, and from there on out next to nothing good seems to happen to these poor kids and when it does, it's so quickly overshadowed by tragedy that you soon forget the good. This should be a transcendant coming of age story that asks penetrating and valid questions about society, ours and theirs. Unfortunately, while there is definitely coming of age and absolutely penetrating questions, transcendence is hard to come by and you, like me, might find yourself peeking through the fingers you have over your eyes to see if maybe something good might just happen.

Okay, I'm making it sound like I really didn't like The Knife of Never Letting Go, but I promise you, I did. Like I said, Ness's characters are ones that you feel immediate sympathy for. They are fleshed out and real in their emotions and reactions. Even Manchee, the dog, is a great character himself. He's faithful and loyal and a little stupid, and you love him. The world Ness has created is bleak and fascinating and filled with mystery that slowly de-mystifies because readers are limited by Todd's perspective. It's a society that has a sadly believable outcome to an unusual problem. It's a society that causes us to consider our own society and the way that we think about things and the way that we so easily delude ourselves. What if people could hear our thoughts? Would we fear silence? Could we divine the truth? Would the lies we tell ourselves change our reality? Even more than that, we come to consider, as Todd approaches the birthday on which he will officially become a man; what exactly makes a man? Is it understanding? Valor? Violence? Self-sacrifice? Jadedness? Or does it all just depend on where you come from?

In the end, The Knife of Never Letting Go is among the best that dystopian fiction has to offer. It gives us a fast paced story that doesn't let go about characters that we come to love, but it also does what dystopian fiction should. It asks the big questions about society and humanity and demands that we consider not only the world the book creates but also the world we live in, which is never so far from the twisted realities of dystopia as we would like to think.

You should read this book (but definitely not when you're feeling down). Fair warning, though. If you read this one, you'd best consider getting your hands on the other two books in the series pronto, because it doesn't wrap up all nice at the end, and you will want to read The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men immediately.


  1. I'm one of the gushers about this series. :) This is a wonderful review. You say many of the things I wish I would have articulated in my review post.

  2. Wow, the best that dystopian has to offer makes it sound amazing!!

  3. It was indeed a depressing book, but I still loved this freaking book to PIECES!! It just amazed me...And I couldn't agree with you is completely necessary to have the rest of the series onhand if you're going to have this one :p

  4. It's a dark series, that's for sure, but one of the reasons why I love it is that it's ultimately not bleak. Looking forward to your thoughts on the other two books!

  5. If you're in a minority I don't know where that puts me! I just finished this book, too, but haven't reviewed it yet because I'm kind of afraid to. Unfortunately it didn't do anything for me and I probably won't be seeking out the others in the series. :( I hate when that happens, but I guess some work and some don't.

    I agree--there are some great questions asked in the book, though. Lots to think about!

  6. No book has ever got to me in quite the way these ones did! And I do mean that in a good way. I'm glad you liked it, Megan! Have you read the other two yet?

  7. I was also of the like it, didn't love it camp and I read it back in the fall and still haven't read the other two, though I have them and plan to.

  8. I'm definitely in the minority: I didn't like the book. I started off liking it, but then what happens to Manchee (don't want to spoil the book for those than haven't read it) and Aaron's indestructibility just bothered me enough to tip the scales from Like to Dislike.

  9. Excellent review! I loved this book, far more than I ever expected!

  10. I am firmly in the LOVE camp, but I think I only grew to LOVE the first book after reading the second and third ones. Then my love for the series in general washed backward to envelop the first one as well. So maybe that will happen to you too. :)

  11. Trisha - Thanks. I'm surprised it turned out cuz I couldn't get it together, but I guess it finally did!

    Kathy - It's definitely worth reading - very thought provoking!

    Chris - I got to the last page, and I was all like...OH NO! I really had to scramble to stand a fighting chance of getting the other two for Christmas. Thank goodness I did!

    Ana - So glad to hear it's ultimately not bleak. Makes me think my love for the series will only grow!

    Trish - It took me *forever* to sit down and write this review. I'm kind of glad I let it sit for a while, helped me get a little perspective on it. I was impressed with how much the book made me think, but some of the nuts and bolts of it didn't really work for me, so I can definitely see how it might not work for everyone.

  12. Debi - I haven't read the other two yet. Soon - very soon!

    Amy - Sounds like we're very much in the same boat. The other two are still waiting for attentions.

    (spoiler warning)
    Lazygal - I definitely agree with your dislikes, they're two things that kept me from loving it. I was really mad about Manchee, and the whole Aaron thing just reminded me of one of those cheesy horror movies where the bad guy won't just lay down and die!
    (all clear!)

    Mariel - Thanks!

    Jenny - That's definitely what I'm hoping will happen. I wanna be in the Love camp which is part of why I'll be happy to continue on with the series and see what happens!

  13. I read this recently and loved it as well - although I was housebound for a few days by an ice storm so had to wait to get my hands on the other books.

    And seriously, I still choke up whenever I think, "Todd? Todd?" *sniff*

    By the by, I thought yours was quite a good review - you managed to be much more articulate than I was with mine! :-)