Book review: Chaos Walking Book 1

‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’

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I think I might need to take a break from young-adult novels.

For the second time in a week, I finished an otherwise fine book whose downbeat ending made me want to throw it across the room.

Up till then, I was thoroughly enjoying my latest YA choice: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” — first in Patrick Ness’s acclaimed “Chaos Walking” trilogy.

Originally published in 2008 and due next year as a nicely cast film from director Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow”), “Knife” is a truly impressive work: beautifully written, ethically profound and furiously suspenseful, with a compelling narrative hook.

Twelve-year-old Todd Hewitt lives in a mysterious village called Prentisstown, which is recovering from a bout of germ warfare that left all the women dead — while at the same time rendering the thoughts of men and animals instantly audible. One senses that Prentisstown is not on Earth, but as with so much else in this carefully constructed story, Ness likes to drop hints while withholding enough info to keep us reading on and on.

In any case, Todd and his fellow townsmen constantly live with “the Noise,” so he can hear what everyone is thinking — and that includes his faithful but dim-witted dog, Manchee.

One afternoon while patrolling a nearby swamp, Todd comes upon a shapeless “silence” that suggests the presence of someone or something whose thoughts cannot be overheard.

As Ness’s narrative quickly becomes a thrilling race for survival, the storyline also manages to provoke deep reflection on such issues as the way males think and the way they treat women; what it means to become an adult; why men and women can’t — but sometimes can — communicate; how they need each other; whether murder is ever justified; and how much someone might sacrifice for the person he loves. In particular, the question of killing has rarely been asked with such gut-level intensity; nor does Ness provide an easy answer.

Yet even as it deals with these moral issues, the book is nearly impossible to put down. Indeed, I sometimes felt — especially toward the end — that Ness had overdone it. There’s hardly any breathing-room here; “one-crisis-after-another” gets downright exhausting after a while. By the time I’d reached the harrowing climax, I really needed a dozen pages to decompress; but Ness refuses to provide this.

The book is certainly not without hope; yet the dark ending, combined with extraordinary violence throughout, makes it tough to recommend for young readers. I can’t help recalling other YA offerings like Rick Yancey’s clever “Fifth Wave” series, with its hopelessly bleak final volume — or Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising,” so distressing that I actually quit halfway through.

It’s no wonder teens are so depressed if the books they’re offered are this grim and brutal. Much as I admired Ness’s first installment, I’ll think long and hard before picking up Nos. 2 and 3.

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