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The International Writers Magazine: Knife of Never Letting Go: Author Profile

Patrick Ness
Aby Davis

Imagine a place where everyone’s thoughts are spinning around their heads brazenly for everyone to see; where your neighbours are physically dressed in everyday thoughts, anxieties and trivial wonderings. You can scarcely think aloud yourself before everyone knows your innermost dreams and humiliations, and you barely make sense of them as the fog of noise is loud enough to drown them out. This world is a reality in Patrick Ness’ award winning book for young adults, The Knife of Never Letting Go, newly available in paperback from Walker Books

I must admit I hate writing reviews for books I’ve really enjoyed, as all my friends will tell you I am a complete spoil sport and get overexcited and spill all the plot twists and secrets within minutes of telling them to read/see something. So bear with me and I’ll try to be good.

It’s Ness’ third novel, but his first for young people. Or in his own words: ‘appealing to the bright eleven year old who aims high.’ I am sitting in a lecture theatre at the University of Portsmouth preparing to listen to the bestselling writer talk about his work. Young, charming and humble under the watch of an eager audience he prepares to read from the book.

Todd, the young protagonist is nearing thirteen,he is no biblical hero. His opinions and lazy, phonetic spelling have a distinctive accent of teenage boy along with something else I can’t put my finger on. When Ness starts reading in Todd’s voice the story comes alive in a whole new way than on paper. The Noise (Ness’ capitalisation, not mine) becomes much more apparent as the words tumble out of Ness’ mouth, and the discovery of silence in the swamp hits me with more vigour than when I first read it. Of course you don’t need to carry around a thirty something American novelist whenever you feel like a read, Todd is vocal enough on his own I promise. Todd aside, the world that Ness has created is incredibly imaginative and full of subtext to disturb and provoke challenging young minds. The idea behind it though, was very simple.

‘I find the world to be very noisy,’ he explains,’ what if the next logical step is that you can’t get away?’

Then there’s the inclusion of a favourite device of children’s literature, animals who chat away companionably; spilling secrets out of their furry little heads. Except Todd’s dog Manchee and the squirrels, crocs and sheep they meet along the way make the Animals of Farthing Wood look ridiculous. Ness explains that he always hated talking dog books. All Manchee ever wants to do is eat and poop, and this, Ness explains, ‘doesn’t make him any less loveable...but funnier and richer.’It is obvious that Ness writes exactly as he pleases. ‘There’s a queue of stories in my head waiting to be told, and I’ve never got any success writing what people want.’ It would be easy for a new children’s book to be lost in the flood of books being printed every year and it took 45 tries and only 4 responses from agents to get his book on the shelves, but The Knife of Never Letting Go apparently is what people want as it won the Guardian Childens Fiction Book of the Year award for this year, and more recently the Booktrust Teenage Prize. Which with good reason Ness is delighted about.

He says that teenagers are a ‘fantastic audience! Very demanding, they won’t take any crap and they ask the most awkward questions,’ which would definitely harness his opinion that ‘writing isn’t for wimps!’It’s this brazen attitude and confidence that give the book its edge. Ness ‘hated books where the bully and victim became best friends,’ where multi racial kids held hands and skip around like a Benetton advert. Consequently, this book does not depict a perfect world.

Todd is no older than 14 and Ness treats him mercilessly, no one Todd loves is safe and Ness is not an author to keep things comfy. Unusually he does not plan the whole book before he writes. Instead, it is a fluid process of 1000 words a day with vague direction towards a pre-written exit line. In other words, anything can happen and it isn’t giving anything away to say that a lot of unexpected stuff does.

Apologies for the vagueness, but like I said I’m trying not to be a spoilsport. What I will say is this: a particular scene in The Knife of Never Letting Go caused me to put the book down in irritation and wonder what on earth was wrong with Patrick Ness? how could he write such an exciting story with likeable characters I want to be friends with, and then do that? Apparently other people felt the same, and Ness’ defence for uncomfortable things to happen is that they ‘always feel right, it’s like telling the reader I’m not messing about, this shouldn’t happen, but it does.’

Then I worked out what it was that was interesting about Todd that I couldn’t put my finger on, he spoke with reality. The book is a fantasy, some might even call it science fiction, but Ness shies away from any implication of genre with a little grimace. He’s not afraid to do things genre doesn’t dictate; just because it’s written for young people doesn’t mean it won’t handle issues that older people face. A constant theme of Todd’s is that he’s waiting for his 13th birthday to turn him into a man, but there’s more to becoming a man than a date on the calendar. It could be suggested that Ness’ no-nonsense approach to story-telling and the challenges he puts both Todd, and his readers through could throw new light onto what really separates the men from the boys.

© Aby Davis December 2008

The Knife of Never Letting Go also won the Booktrust Award for best young fiction of 2008

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