The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first instalment of the hugely successful Chaos Walking Trilogy. First published in 2008, it was Patrick Ness’s first novel for young adults and won the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Guardian Award and the James Triptree, Jr. Award in the same year. It has since been followed by two sequels:  The Ask and the Answer (2009) and Monsters of Men (2010).

The story is set on a planet known as New World which was settled by religious pilgrims around twenty years prior to the novel. Todd Hewitt is twelve years old and is only one month away from becoming a man. He lives in the isolated community of Prentisstown – a place where all the women have been killed by a deadly plague. As a side effect of this disease, all animals have also been granted the ability to talk (though most do not have much to say) and the men have been made unable to hide their thoughts from each other. The sound of their inner-most thoughts, called the Noise, is heard endlessly throughout the town and so there are no secrets between them.

One day, while exploring the swamps around his home, Todd comes across something impossible – a patch of silence within the Noise. Fleeing home in a panic, Todd’s Noise inadvertently reveals what he has discovered to the rest of the town. This is a problem. The Mayor and Aaron, the town’s preacher, have always sworn that there is no silence anywhere. Now Todd has uncovered their lie.

When he reaches home, Todd discovers that his guardians have been preparing for him to escape the town for a long time. The sudden danger that has befallen him serves to speed their hand. As the Mayor’s men ransack his home, Todd is forced to escape into the wilderness with only his dog, Manchee, for company. Although he does not understand what is going on, he is given a map to the next town and a simple instruction: You must warn them.

I will just warn you now that there will be some spoilers in this review. I’ll try to steer away from the big reveals but the plot of this book is so complex that it’s impossible to analyse it without giving some things away.

Firstly, I think I should simply say that this novel absolutely blew me away. I think that it is by far the best novel that I have reviewed for this blog. It’s not perfect (nothing is) but by the time that Todd was forced to flee his home town, I was utterly engrossed. To be perfectly honest, this surprised me. The novel opens to a passage in which Manchee voices to Todd his desire to have a poo and this made me want to shut the book again immediately. I have a low tolerance for talking animals at the best of times and I expected that this novel would be no exception.

Following on from this was another pet hate of mine – novels written phonetically. As I stated in my review of Blood Red Road my general opinion is that there are many ways to express in your text that a character speaks with an accent, but spelling it out with every word is gimmicky and quickly becomes a distraction from the content of the story. While I did not think that The Knife of Never Letting Go integrated Todd’s dialect very evenly into the story (some long words he has no trouble spelling while others were written so differently that it took me a while to figure out what he was trying to say), the novel was so gripping that after a while this ceased to bother me.

What is most striking about the novel is its concept. The idea behind the story – a world where silence is a forgotten dream and no men can hide anything from each other – is very unique. Although we only experience this phenomenon from Todd’s point of view, it still raises many ethical questions. The barrage of thoughts is portrayed as being intrusive, forcing Todd to be constantly subjected to all kinds of violent and sexual imagery, but it is still clear that this is the world that he finds comforting. When confronted with the idea of silence – and people who do not have Noise – Todd is immediately terrified. As he has grown up surrounded by Noise, he finds it difficult to trust people who do not have it as he has the constant feeling that they are hiding things from him. This is a fascinating concept and provides much food for thought.

The setting of New World is both alien and familiar in equal measure. Although there are hints of higher technology throughout the story – homes powered by fission generators and bandages made from synthetic human tissue – the novel still maintains the feel of 19th Century America with Todd as a kind of futuristic Huckleberry Finn. While Viola, the first girl that Todd meets on his journey, represents a culture that is far more technologically advanced, Todd knows nothing of this world. His experiences have been blinkered by his time in Prentisstown and he struggles to adapt as he learns that the world is not as small and brutal as he had been led to believe.

On the subject of brutality, it probably seems fair to warn you that this is not a particularly pleasant read. The book grows darker and bleaker as the stoty progresses, and I appreciate that this will not be to everyone’s taste. Every step of his journey Todd is hurt or threatened by either the Prentisstown men that pursue him or people who discriminate against him due to his association with the town. The darkness is thickened by the deaths of people he is close too, though these never seem exploitative and always serve the higher goal of developing Todd as a character. There is a running theme in the novel of what it is that makes a man and the danger of society’s negative influence in the development of a boy. Although some of the deaths in the story are deeply upsetting, they all help Todd to come to terms with the sins of Prentisstown and decide the kind of man he wants to be.

Although dark, I found Todd’s story to also be deeply moving. Throughout the novel, I begin to grow increasingly attached to both him and Viola. Although they started out on bad terms, as their journey progressed I really got the sense of their characters evolving through their experiences together. Terrible things happen to them in the novel but these just cause the two of them to grow stronger and closer. Although at the beginning Todd cuts an unlikable character, revealing in his Noise that he would rather abandon Viola and carry on alone, he gradually comes to like her and actively want to protect her. Similarly, Viola is initially prejudiced against Todd because she likens him to the psychotic Aaron, but gradually grows to trust him.

As the novel is entirely told from Todd’s perspective, a lot of the other characters that he meets on his journey are portrayed as hateful characters. Mayor Prentiss and his men are hardly seen within the novel, but the brutality of their actions is constantly felt. Although there is little explanation as to why they behave in such an aggressive manner in the early part of the novel, the final few twists of the story cause everything to make sense. Even the actions of Aaron, who initially just seems to be driven by his extreme religious beliefs, are revealed to actually be driven by a particularly interesting end goal in the final chapters.

In fact, The Knife of Never Letting Go just kept on giving and giving, revealing satisfying plot twist after satisfying plot twist. In the end, the only thing that I didn’t really appreciate was the ending. The novel ends with a rather shameless cliff-hanger, cutting off mid climax and leaving the fates of some characters uncertain. I felt that this was a cheap way to convince the reader to pick up the next book as a novel this good did not really need to resort to such a device.

Anyway, to conclude, I would like to say that The Knife of Never Letting Go is one of the finest young adult novels that I have ever read and would recommend it to anyone. Although I appreciate that the style and content might be a bit marmite – some will not gel with the narrative style and incredibly dark subject matter – but I found it to be an absolute literary gem, filled with complex motivations, character development and enthralling plot twists.

The Knife of Never Letting Go can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kookiekrysp
    May 13, 2014 @ 19:29:39

    This is my all time favorite Young Adult trilogy, and I love your review! It was very thoughtful! 🙂

    Reply

  2. helen berry
    May 13, 2014 @ 19:53:43

    Yay I’m glad you liked it! I remember reading part of it on the Tube and strangers kept asking me if I was okay cos I was bawling my eyes out!

    Reply

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