The Knife of Never Letting Go
by Patrick Ness
2008, 479 pages
I was inspired to borrow this book from the library by seeing the trailer for the upcoming movie "Chaos Walking." "Chaos Walking" is also the name of Ness's series of three books, of which this is the first.
This is a teen novel, told from the point of view of Todd Hewitt. He lives in Prentisstown, and is the last "boy" left. There's some high tech, but mostly they exist by subsistence farming. At some point, a plague wiped out all the women on the planet at the same time as a war with the native aliens wiped out the aliens. It also burdened all the men with "Noise," meaning that each of them (and all the animals on the planet) broadcast their thoughts and feelings to be heard by anyone nearby. Todd is the last male under the age of 13. But a month before his 13th birthday, when he'll officially become a "man," he finds a real live young woman in the nearby swamp - which precipitates a series of events that includes the two men who've been raising him telling him to leave and never come back (to protect him), and preparing to prevent the rest of the town from hunting him down. He flees with the young woman (who's in as much danger as he is) and his dog Manchee in tow.
The book is written in a sort of half-assed stream-of-consciousness style, in a deliberately mangled version of English meant to indicate Todd's limited education. He and the girl travel for weeks, occasionally meeting people, but mostly being injured, pursued, and hungry. The book feels gritty, violent, depressing, and never-ending. I liked it initially, despite the horrible English, but it just kept going and going - which got awfully tiresome. The shitty, broken logic and multiple improbable events used to ramp up the tension didn't help either.
According to Wikipedia, one of the inspirations for the story was Ness's view that everyone who'd previously written talking dogs had got it wrong. And credit where it's due: Manchee is a wonderful character in the book, and his stunted shorthand language felt to me exactly like how a dog would speak.
The book in the end turns out to be all about Todd's innocence and the horror of war. His "innocence," his not having killed anyone, becomes the biggest symbol (in several ways) in the book. And I had a lot of trouble buying into this. And then there's the ending: it's a massive cliffhanger. I've said this before, but I'll say it again for Patrick Ness: authors who write cliffhangers don't trust their readers, and don't believe in the quality of their own writing to draw those readers back to the sequel. Endings like that infuriate me, and commonly (as in this case) drive me to Wikipedia to read the plot summary of the sequel because I refuse to read the actual book after the author's shitty ending - particularly given that I was sick of his prose style, and the endless drawn-out pain of participating in Todd's unpleasant life. I'll add that the critics loved this book: I seem to be almost the sole dissenting voice. <shrug>