Ness, Patrick (2008). The knife of never letting go. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 479 pages.
So, you know how I tend to avoid both critically and popularly acclaimed (by my peers, at least) novels? In the case of Patrick Ness’s The knife of never letting go, I’ve been proven a major rube. I just finished the book–the first in a planned trilogy–this evening and I feel like a major loser for not having just listened to the critics (and prizegivers–Ness won the UK’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Booktrust Teenage Prize for the novel) and everybody else already.
Set on a planet settled in the not-too-distant past (in the teleological context of the novel) by humans, Knife is told from the first-person perspective of Todd, the last boy living in his settlement. Following a war with the planet’s local “aliens” known as Spackles, all the female settlers have been killed and all the male members of humanity have been “infected” with the ability to see and hear each other’s thoughts. The thoughts of animals are equally accessible and freely shared. As Todd approaches his thirteenth birthday–the age at which all boys in his settlement become men–two notable events occur: first, he discovers a source of Quiet within the Noise of men’s thoughts and, second (and related to number one), he is forced away by his guardians who warn him that his settlement town is getting ready to (metaphorically) explode. A long (nearly 500 page) journey awaits Todd, the dog Manchee who accompanies him, and Viola, the source of the Quiet and the girl who ends up joining him.
Admittedly, Ness (or Candlewick) relies on my least favorite printing trope: the use of a distinct and quirky font to capture some of the thoughts broadcast by men and beasts. The novel is so otherwise rich, however, that I can’t call out the device as the cover for poor characterization is usually offers. I hesitate to call this novel an adventure, mostly because the term has always implied optimism for me and Knife is definitely not optimistic. It’s not super hardcore sci-fi, either, though the setting and technology (as well as the periodic lack thereof) are familiar conventions. It’s no Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, to be sure, but it’s definitely not lighthearted.
As a young adult novel, Knife is invested in part in both challenging and reifying what Roberta Seelinger Trites wrote in her seminal (oval?) 2001 essay “The Harry Potter novels as a test case for adolescent literature” (Style, Fall, 2001) in which the critic argues that one of the functions of young adult literature is to urge its fictional characters (and, presumably, the teen reader) to accept their inferior position in the greater power system. Ness’s novel both evades and confronts this, as in this quote from the middle of the book:
It’s like nothing that happened before really happened, like that was all a big lie just
waiting for me to find out. No, not like, it was a big lie waiting for me to find out and
this is the real life now, running without safety or answer, only moving, only ever
moving (Ness, 2008, 230).
The first part of the quote–in which the narrator (Todd) realizes that childhood (“before”) and its lived conceits are lies seems to fit in with Trites’ theory. The second, in which there is no “safety or answer, only moving” seems to evade the conclusion to which, Trites argues, adolescent protagonists are meant to come. That said, perhaps the “moving” only postpones the inevitable, as the conclusion of this installment of Ness’s series might lead one to believe. I’m waiting for the final act and keeping my fingers crossed.