This review contains spoilers.
Being able to hear everyone else’s thoughts sounds like it could be a pretty good deal. You’d hear the answer to every question your teacher asked, and you’d know exactly what to buy your mother for her birthday. The downside is that everybody else can hear your thoughts, but even that has its positives. You would never have to get up the guts to tell your boss that you deserved a raise, and your mom would already know how much you wanted a pony for Christmas.
A virus has been released in Prentisstown that makes men’s thoughts audible. And since every resident of Prentisstown is a man, everyone knows what every other resident thinks. It is called the Noise, and it is definitely not a good thing.
“There ain’t nothing but Noise in this world, nothing but the constant thoughts of men and things coming at you and at you and at you, ever since the Spacks released the Noise germ during the war, the germ that killed half the men and every single woman, my ma not excepted, the germ that drove the rest of the men mad, the germ that spelled the end for all Spackle once men’s madness picked up a gun.” (page 13)
Todd Hewitt goes through his life hearing the nastiest, most salacious thoughts of his neighbors. Todd is the last boy in the town, and as he approaches his manhood it becomes clear that the men have been keeping a secret from him. While Todd hunts for apples in the swamp outside of town, he discovers something that shouldn’t exist: a patch of silence in the Noise. The silence leads him to a girl – something else that doesn’t exist in Prentisstown. And the girl leads him to constant revelations. The things he had believed to be true in his life are unraveled one by one. After his discovery of Viola in the swamp, Todd’s world “keeps getting bigger” (page 100) as he runs from the lies of Prentisstown and from the violent and controlling men who perpetuate those lies.
This book was excellent enough for me to overlook the fact that it features no less than three of my personal literature pet-peeves: phonetic spelling, a cliffhanger ending that doesn’t complete the story arc, and the death of a beloved pet. That’s right, this is a book where the dog dies. Despite that, the story’s constant action make it difficult to put this book down. The reader makes every new discovery about Prentisstown’s past along with Todd, and each new piece of information adds to the urgency of Todd’s escape. For me, this was a major part of the reason that Todd is so easy to relate to, which in turn makes the scenes of violence feel so immediate and terrifying.
The language of Noise in The Knife of Never Letting Go are worth an in-depth look – both Todd’s voice and the constant overwhelming voices of the Noise surrounding him. The way Ness illustrates the Noise, with fonts and text sizes changing and overlapping, paints a vivid picture of the chaos of words that has surrounded Todd his whole life. It is easy to accept other people’s noise as the truth, but as Todd learns over the course of the book, the truth can be covered up and twisted even in men’s Noise. Todd notes that Noise is not truth, but “what men want to be true, and there’s a difference twixt those things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don’t watch out” (page 23). Voices of animals are used creatively and often humorously, and even some plants get in on the action. The most effective use of the animals voices is Todd’s dog, Manchee. At first Manchee’s voice is comic relief – as Todd notes in the book’s wonderful opening sentence, “the first thing you find out when your dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say” (page 1). But both Todd and the reader change their opinion of the dog, and he becomes a moral center for the book. While Todd’s connection to Manchee grows stronger because of his Noise, the connection between Todd and Viola is made difficult because of her lack of noise – Todd feels cut off from her because she is not constantly telegraphing her thoughts and emotions. At first he doubts that she can be thinking or feeling at all. The effect of the Noise, even on those who do not have it, is profound.
I was delighted to see Lisa Chellman’s recent post on the relationship between Ben and Cillian, Todd’s adopted family. I also read them as a gay couple, although there is no explicit discussion of their relationship in the story. I highly suggest reading Lisa’s thoughts on how they are portrayed in the book, and how their portrayal should be celebrated.
Though stylistically they are very different, this might be a good recommendation for readers who loved The Hunger Games. Both feature young characters growing close while trying to escape a violent dystopian society, and both have constant action that keeps readers engaged.
An earlier version of this review is cross-posted at The Well-Read Child.
Patrick Ness on the web
The Knife of Never Letting Go on the web