Background: I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go at ALA last summer, because it was a young adult novel about a dystopian world, and I can rarely resist those. I tried to start it a couple of times, but found the first few pages offputting. And I was a bit scared off by Laini Taylor, who called the ending a punch in the stomach. But I kept seeing positive reviews, too, and I finally decided this week to force myself through the first few pages, and see what happened. Sheila Ruth promised that I wouldn't be able to put it down once I got into it. Sheila was right. Once I got past the first chapter, I read this book compulsively, staying up late one night to finish. Now I'm struggling a bit with what to say. But I'll try.
Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. Todd is a month away from officially being recognized as a man in his small town. He is in some ways an ordinary adolescent male, railing against the adoptive parents (two men) who expect him to do too many chores, and annoyed because last year's birthday present, a dog named Manchee, wasn't what he really wanted.
But Todd's life is far from ordinary. His town, Prentisstown, is populated only by males. All of the women died shortly after Todd was born, and the town, completely isolated, is slowly dying off. Todd is, apparently, the last boy in the world. In Prentisstown, all of the men and animals can hear one another's thoughts. All of their thoughts. All the time. The constant barrage of thoughts is known as Noise. It turns out that the Noise, because there's so much of it, can hide secrets.
Todd's life changes forever when he meets a lost girl in the swamp near his house. Viola is living proof that not all of the women in the world are dead after all. And, even more disquieting, Todd can't hear her thoughts. Before he quite knows what's happening, Todd finds himself on the road with his dog and Viola, desperately fleeing the only people he's ever known.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is not an easy read and it's not a pleasant read. Todd suffers immensely throughout the book. Many of the people around him around him are downright evil, and Todd is hated, apparently without cause. Many of the scenes are bleak and depressing. A few are a bit gruesome. Todd's narration, filled with the contractions and spelling errors and lack of punctuation that stem from having little education, is difficult to get used to. Still, there are many things that I admired about this book.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is utterly compelling. The plot is suspenseful, as Todd strives to learn Prentisstown's secrets, and action-filled, as Todd, Viola, and Manchee fight for survival. Todd is a complex character. You can see how he's evolved from his largely toxic upbringing, kept humane only by the kindness of the two men who raised him. The interplay between Todd and Viola, the boy who broadcasts his every thought and the girl who doesn't, is fascinating. There is a scene, late in the book, as Todd comes to term with their difference, that I loved. I also found the whole concept of what Noise would do to someone's perceptions fascinating. And there's occasional humor in the noise of the animals (e.g., "birds all thinking their worrisome little birdie thoughts. Where's my food? Where's home? Where's my safety?").
Overall, though, I have to say that even I, someone who is addicted to dark, dystopian stories, found this one a bit too dark for my taste. I've tried to put my finger on why that is, and I think that it's a combination of the immediacy of Todd's voice and the terrible things that happen. Throughout the book, I experienced Todd's inner monologue close up. When bad things happened, I felt like I was the one who got stabbed or punched. There was one scene in particular that I found almost unbearable. (If you've read the book, it's the scene getting onto the boat.) A book that could make me feel that way is clearly brilliant. But that doesn't mean that I enjoyed it, exactly.
Here are a couple of examples of Todd's voice. He is, despite his lack of education, a little bit of a poet:
"He smiles down at me, thru that beard of his, smiles down at me in the grass.
A smiling fist." (Chapter 1, ARC)
and a little bit of a philosopher:
"So the thing to remember, that thing that's most important of all that I might say in this here telling of things is that Noise ain't truth, Noise is what men want to be true, and there's a difference twixt those two things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don't watch out." (Chapter 2, ARC)
Some of the things that Todd ponders made me stop and wonder, too:
"We stand arm's length apart cuz her silence still bothers me. I chew down on a piece of dried fruit and I wonder what it must be like to have no Noise, to come from a place with no Noise. What does it mean? What kind of place is it? Is it wonderful? Is it terrible?" (Chapter 10, ARC)
If those examples intrigue you, or if you're a fan of dystopian or what-if sorts of stories, and you have a high tolerance for bleak, you should certainly check out The Knife of Never Letting Go. As I said, it's brilliant. Just make sure you pick it up when you have some free time, because once you get past the first couple of chapters, you won't want to let it go until you've finished. I would even suggest waiting to read it until book 2 comes out, since The Knife of Letting Go ends on a serious cliff-hanger, one that I know some other readers have found frustrating. As for me, I'm curious about what will happen next, but not sure if I'll be able to bring myself to read the second book. I welcome your feedback.
Publication Date: September 9, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the ARC, and should be checked against the final book
Other Blog Reviews: Librarilly Blonde, Wands and Worlds, Reading Rants!, Becky's Book Reviews, Kids Lit, Presenting Lenore, Ready Set Read Reviews, Bookends, and others. See also Lisa Chellman's specific comments on Todd's parents, Ben and Cillian.
Author Interviews: Post-Weird Thoughts, Readspace, Fantasy Book Critic
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.