This novel is inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd who died before getting a chance to write it. Never having read anything by Dowd, I can't comment on how well author Patrick Ness captured the late author's spirit or style. Nevertheless, this is a powerful novel about a boy struggling with a parent's illness.
Conor's mother is sick. She has been for a long time and doesn't seem to get any better. Ever since she's been sick, Conor's been having nightmares. Now, though, he's having a new nightmare. This time around, the old yew tree that sits in the church cemetery by his house transforms into a huge monster that comes to visit Conor. It claims it wants to help Conor - who is dealing not only with a sick mother, but a school bully, a grandmother moving in whom he doesn't particularly get along with, and a father who left him for a new life in America. In order to help Conor, the monster yew tree is going to tell him three stories. After his three stories, Conor needs to tell his story and finally admit the truth that he isn't ready to face.
This story is a really quick read. The story that at times feels like a fairy tale or fable - especially the stories that the monster tells. The book is filled with eerie drawings, yet the book isn't scary in any way. The monster is just a vessel to get the stories and lesson. Each time the monster comes, Conor is dealing with something big - his grandmother's appearance, his father's momentarily return on top of his mother's declining health, and the bully's final move. Each story is a lesson to help him face not only the situation, but his big truth that he's avoiding. Although the stories are not the most clear-cut and Conor is definitely frustrated afterwards, it all makes sense at the end of the novel (as one would expect). This is a powerful story about a child dealing with a sick parent and the internal struggle that comes from that. Conor's whole life is changing, especially given the fact that his mother is dying. He sees his home life changing and even things at school because now labeled "he's the kid with the dying mother," which means he's treated differently. The book, come the end, forces Conor - and the reader - to face the truth about our feelings in a situations like this and how those feelings can be contradicting - both selfish and selfless at the same time.
For the most part, it's not until Conor's truth comes out that the novel feels whole. Everything makes sense once the truth is out and the monster explains how it all fits. At that point you realize how strong the novel has been. Given how quickly this book reads, it is worth picking up.