The International Writers Magazine: Review
The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
Walker Books (paperback)
Todd and Viola, after finding their way from the swamps off Old Prentiss town to the city of Haven, are captured and immediately broken apart by their seemingly unstoppable enemy, Mayor Prentiss.
However, if they think things are bad they are about to get an awful lot worse. Patrick Ness, in his gripping sequel to Knife of Never Letting Go takes the reader on a journey, not about two friends and their much tested bond of love, but also into the human psyche of a teenage boy and girl as they leave the warmth of innocence and enter the blazing fire of adulthood. Frustrated by a lengthening separation, circumstances leads them on very different paths and down desperate routes. Soon Todd must ask himself: How can you fight the beast, when the beast has become yourself? Action by action Todd is being broken down into an unfeeling monster.
The Ask and the Answer is the second in the chaos walking trilogy by acclaimed author Patrick Ness. The first novel, The Knife of Never Letting Go received both the Guardian's Children's fiction prize and the BookTrust teenage prize. After reading and thoroughly enjoying this book I was both excited and anxious to get my hands on the next.
The second book carries on directly from Todd and VIola's adventures across New world and the bleak, panicked tone off the final heart wrenching chapter spreads thickly into The Ask and The Answer. The first book showed Patrick Ness capable of writing compelling but difficult scenes, however in this book the narrative explores deeper, unfolding the darker recesses of the human condition.
The lines of good and evil are masterfully blurred and as a reader we witness the manipulation of youths' innocence. Patrick Ness puts his well crafted characters through ordeals that no one should have to go through, and in doing so pulls the reader along with them. From reading the first book I felt Ness had managed to build a strong connection between the main characters and the audience. This was important in the second book where Todd and Viola ultimately loose their innocence, committing tragic acts and making difficult decisions. As the connection between Todd and the reader had already been established I found that it was easier to forgive him for any bad things he did, believing in his salvation. However I think that if I had not read the first book my attachment would not have been as strong and by the end and I would have lost any faith in Todd. It is defiantly a trilogy to be read in order.
Todd and Viola start the story separated and spend much of the book trying to find each other. their apartness is a key theme, creating a strong urn-dying hope that suggests that anyone can overcome adversity if they have something worth fighting for. However, this hope is also used against them.
Todd is constantly manipulated by the situation he finds himself in. In a sense the book is about him learning to become strong and take control of his own life. There is a blatant irony in that Mayor Prentiss continually tells him he can be strong by believing in "the Circle', but he can only ultimately achieve this inner strength by using his feelings of hate and love as a weapon against him.
There are a few uncomfortable moments, particularly the torture scenes, which gives the book a slightly older readership. At points reading it felt like rubber-necking a car accident. There was a compulsion to read on even though the subject matter was very serious. However, Ness crafted these moments well, capturing the anxiety of the situation without being graphic.
It seems a horrible trick the Ness is able to build a loveable, admirable character, then slowly twist him into a beast before the readers eyes. Todd becomes a highly complex character, which seems symbolic off his journey from child into adulthood. This complexity also extends into the relationship he holds with the reader. At a time when Gantanamo bay is a hot topic the book seems to break down the issue, humanising the people who do terrible things in the name of democracy. Mayor Prentiss is grooming Todd into a monster. The forgiveness that we place on Todd at the end of the book seems to me recognisant of that which families of deceased must feel after a war. The complex nature of life at the time has made people do previously unthinkable things. By the end of the book I had conflicting emotions, I didn't want the book to end but I was also glad that it was over. However, I think that these comments are both good reflections on the emotive nature of the novel.
Throughout The Ask and The Answer Ness discusses the complex and ever relevant problem of terrorism in a compelling way. He highlights that there is never a clear line between good and bad. There is a difficult distinction between the terrorism of 'The Ask' and the sanctioned acts of 'The Answer'. As Viola finds out, there is no easy side to be on in war, no right to fight the wrong only opinion and belief. This has obvious reflections on our own society, where we are asked to believe that 'terrorism' is wrong without even considering what the notion of terrorism is. There is always a demand to have a side, even if neither options seem right. Todd and Viola find this to their peril when they are split away from each other and find themselves on opposing sides. Can you forgive a loved one when you have seen the atrocities they have committed?
There is also a real sense of the post 9/11 paranoia which seems to engulf the western world, where large groups in society have become suspects because we don't know who the enemy is. The book bares relevance to places like Northern Ireland were, like in 'The Ask and The Answer', the old war is to long ago for the young to remember, but some still have grudges to settle. Because of this the youth are being indoctrinated and re-militarised on both sides. It doesn't take much to create a personal hatred fuelled by retaliation. This is the weapon Mayor Prentiss uses against Todd's conscience, "The Answer have stepped up there campaign… and we will respond in kind". As the war escalates through the book so does the tension, as acts become more unreasonable and the city becomes a state of fear.
Patrick Ness achieves a great insight into the workings of dictatorship, demonstrated through the character Major Prentiss. Little by little he introduces small changes in society that ease the public into a nightmare world without realising it. He uses the age old trick of terror to do so. Fear of the enemy and fear of the consequences of in-action, coupled with fear of the man himself push the city to greater and more desperate measures.
Manipulation is the name of the game and Major Prentiss is a master. He also undergoes a transformation within the book. His powers become stronger and more dangerous as his cunning is sharpened to a raisers edge. Can Todd overcome his increasingly lethal enemy, when Major Prentiss wants his for Todd to love him.
Ness continues his exploration of 'otherness' into The Ask and The Answer, depicting how humans try to demean and control things they don't understand. The 'Spackle', an alien community that inhabit New World, become an important part of the narrative. Todd, along with his nemesis Davy is put in charge of their care. Tensions quickly grow as Todd takes out his pent up anger on these seemingly sheep like creatures. The invasion of another place and then the rapid destruction of the inhabitants way of life has obvious echos of colonialism. It is not until Todd manages to relate to one of the Spackle, number 1017 that he can see them as equals. One young, Spackle with a strong survival instinct becomes the trigger for Todd's guilt, but too late to undo the damage he has done. However, the final chapters of the book leaves the reader with no doubt that Ness has written their revenge.
The second instalment of the chaos walking trilogy is definitely a must read book of the year. The Ask and The Answer is a raging cloud of anxiety, faith and a quick decent into darkness. At points it appears, which ever way Todd looks, the paths ahead lie bleak and unforgiving before him. The only silver lining is hope, something that the reader will cling to just as much as much as the characters. Will Todd be able to find Viola and escape or will he loose himself under Mayor Prentiss's powerful mind weapons?
© Callum Graham April 2010
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