Title: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking 1)
Author: Patrick Ness
Genre: Speculative Fiction (Horror/Science Fiction), Young Adult
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: September 2008
Hardcover: 492 pages
Stand alone or series: Book one of the Chaos Walking trilogy.
Why did I read this book: I had seen this book pop up on my Amazon suggestions, and the pretty cover matched its intriguing description. Then I saw it show up on the “Best of 2008” Young Adult novel list, and I had to have it.
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
A dystopian thriller follows a boy and girl on the run from a town where all thoughts can be heard — and the passage to manhood embodies a horrible secret.
Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.
The world is full of Noise.
Every thought, every feeling, every inner fantasy, lie and mumbling is projected outward in a barrage of sound. Every man’s and animal’s thoughts are laid bare, and there is no escape from the constant cacophony. In a long ago war between the Spackle and humans, the aliens unleashed a Noise Germ as a biological weapon, causing the thoughts of all humans and animals to be heard, and also killed all human women. Though Men won the war, the Noise remains and has become an everyday part of Man’s life.
As there are no women left in the world, there is only one child. Todd Hewitt is the last boy in a world of Men. Only a month away from his thirteenth year of thirteen months marking his welcome to Manhood, Todd plays on the outskirts of Prentisstown with his loyal dog Manchee, trying to avoid the never ending torrent of Noise in the town. In the swampy outskirts, Todd and Manchee discover something completely and wholly alien to them–they notice a “hole” in the Noise. The complete absence of sound. Scared, the duo rushes away from the void and into Prentisstown, trying not to think of the aberration and keep its existence a secret until Todd can talk to his guardians, Ben and Cillian, about it. When Todd relates his tale, however, Ben and Cillian grimly tell him that he must leave Prentisstown immediately, and never come back. They pack him a bag with his late mother’s diary, a map, and Ben’s treasured hunting knife, telling Todd to go through the dangerous swamp and keep on running. Todd and Manchee flee, until they come in contact with that strange hole in the Noise again, and they discover its source is a girl. Todd has never seen a girl before, outside of Men’s Noise and in vids, but he knows that the person he finds is unmistakably a young woman. The Men from Prentisstown meanwhile are on their relentless pursuit of Todd and when the girl is captured by a zealous Reverend named Aaron, Todd cannot leave her to die. With his guardian’s knife as his only weapon, Todd, Manchee and the unspeaking girl race across the swampy earth until they come across a town…with men and women and children.
Everything Todd has ever known changes. He discovers that the Men of Prentisstown have been keeping a terrible secret, and they will do anything to get Todd back.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is deceptive in its “Young Adult” label–this is a gritty, dystopian nightmare of a novel, tackling some deep issues. What drives this story, and my favorite aspect of the book, is Todd’s rough narration. Told from his first person point of view, it’s easy to imagine that I was actually reading Todd’s Noise–the whole book is a stream of his thoughts without barrier. Todd’s grammar and spelling are frequently incorrect, and in accordance with his voice, unfiltered and raw. His manner of speaking is that of a backcountry kid, but with a more modern spin. For example:
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything…Ben’s sent me to pick him some swamp apples and he’s made me take Manchee with me, even tho we all know Cillian only bought him to stay on Mayor Prentiss’ good side and so suddenly here’s this brand-new dog as a present for my birthday last year when I never said I wanted any dog, that what I said I wanted was for Cillian to finally fix the fissionbike so I wouldn’t have to walk every forsaken place in this stupid town, but oh, no, happy birthday, Todd, here’s a brand new puppy, Todd, and even tho you don’t want him, even tho you never asked for him, guess who has to feed him and train him and wash him and take him for walks and listen to him jabber now he’s got old enough for the talking germ to set his mouth moving? Guess who?
Todd’s voice is raw and rough enough to feel completely genuine, and yet never strays into annoying territory–the voice is enough to make Todd a distinct, real character, but never at the expense of pulling me out of the story and making me notice it. The writing for the entire novel is brilliant, and I applaud Mr. Ness for this fantastic effort.
Todd himself is the star of this book, a character that attempts to be jaded and tough as he’s so looking forward to “becoming a Man”–yet he is still just a young teenage boy, afraid and alone in a world that does not make any sense. He’s outwardly gruff to his dog Manchee, claiming that he never wanted a stupid dog in the first place, but their relationship is deeply touching and heartfelt. So too is the relationship with Todd and the mysterious girl, who initially distrusts Todd just as he is afraid of her crushing silence. Gradually the two come to trust and rely on each other as numerous obstacles are thrown in their way–kidnappings and the ever pressing threat of the Men from Prentisstown. It’s not necessarily a romantic relationship (at least, not yet)–rather, it is a bond forged between two characters undergoing a mortal ordeal, driving them ever closer together. The most impressive thing about this novel is the compassion that Mr. Ness injects into his characters–I could not help but love them, root for them, and cry for them.
Plotting and world building-wise, The Knife of Never Letting Go also does a fine job. While it is the characters and Todd’s narration that propel this book and allow the reader to really delve into the story, the premise of the novel is what hooked me to begin with. The idea of Noise is terrifying–how could anyone live with their thoughts projected for all to hear? Is Noise the equivalent of telepathy, with no training or off-button? How would people ever manage to live in cities knowing their neighbors’ most intimate secrets–and that neighbors in turn know their most intimate secrets–and the awful overwhelming helplessness of it all? As Todd and Manchee begin to run away from Prentisstown I wondered how they could ever escape anyone who could hear the slightest whisper of their minds. Todd’s world and its sad history are also intriguing–why would Noise only kill women? Why would the Spackle choose to develop and unleash such a maddening weapon? How did mankind get to this strange planet to begin with? All these questions–plus many more (which I won’t relate here for fear of spoiling)–rattled around noisily in my head while reading this novel.
The pace of the book itself is breakneck, as Todd and his friends rush onward, looking for help and escape from the intent Prentisstown Men. There’s also Todd’s wonderment at the fact that everything he has learned before has been a lie, as he discovers women and children are alive and well outside of the Prentisstown borders. All of this, of course, is building up to an ultimate reveal, of the past of Prentisstown and the reason why Todd is being pursued so relentlessly by Aaron and the other Men. However, I felt that these revelations didn’t quite live up to the immense hype that had been building from the onset of the book, and were somewhat predictable. There are some interesting plot seeds that are sown here though, and as The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first in a trilogy, I’m excited to see where the story goes next.
The only other factor that detracted from this book for me was in the abrupt, cliffhanger ending. I love a good cliffhanger, but this one was just unfair! After all the struggle and tension as Todd and his friends race for help, the book ends with a bonafide donkey punch, and left me frantically clawing at the last pages looking for a missing chapter or two.
As a cliffhanger, this is about as gripping–and infuriating–as the LOST season 1 finale, with Locke and Jack peering down into the dark hole that is The Hatch. Needless to say, I will be picking up the next book, but I hate feeling so emotionally exploited with endings like this. It’s kind of a love-hate thing (another series notorious for doing this is Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series–which I love, but hate because of the wait between books).
Notable Quotes/Parts: The best description of Noise…
I know what yer thinking: how can I not know if all day, every day I’m hearing every thought of the two men who run my house? That’s the thing, tho. Noise is noise. It’s crash and clatter and it usually adds up to one big mash of sound and thought and picture and half the time it’s impossible to make any sense of it all. Men’s minds are a messy place and Noise is like the active, breathing face of that mess. It’s what’s true and what’s believed and what’s imagined and what’s fantasized and it says one thing and a completely opposite thing at the same time and even tho the truth is definitely in there, how can you tell what’s true and what’s not when yer getting everything?
The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.
Additional Thoughts: Certain passages of the book appear hand-written, scribbled and printed in different fonts across the page to symbolize the chaos of Noise. I found this to be incredibly effective–and honestly a bit scary, with the range of strange thoughts. Just visualizing the pandemonium on the page is enough to make my skin crawl–I could not imagine hearing it constantly. Is this some sort of critique on the ultimate invasion of privacy?
What do you think?
Verdict: I really enjoyed The Knife of Never Letting Go, for its beautiful characterizations and its rugged writing style. While I felt the book stumbled in its shocking revelations, it still is an immensely readable, un-put-downable novel. Definitely recommended…just beware of that ending!
Rating: 8 Excellent – I expect Good Things from this series, and hope that the promising ideas begun here will be executed more strongly in subsequent books than they were here.
Reading Next: Impossible by Nancy Werlin