A boy drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies.
Then he wakes, naked, bruised and thirsty, but alive.
How can this be? And what is this strange, deserted place?
As he struggles to understand what is happening, the boy dares to hope. Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife?
A decade on from The Crash of Hennington, this April saw the publication of Patrick Ness's first novel ostensibly for adults since his little-seen 2003 debut... and what a novel The Crane Wife was! At the time, I concluded that it was "simply sublime: a story as strange, ultimately, as it is true," and to be sure, it's still sitting pretty in my list of the year's best books. Now the two-time Carnegie Medal award-winner is back doing... well, I wouldn't say what he does best, not after the enchanting affair aforementioned, but doing, again, the thing with which he's found the most success: genre fiction by way of YA.
But this isn't the YA of your young adulthood. Not by any stretch of the imagination — and there's imagination aplenty in More Than This. It's searching, but soaring. Inconceivably bleak and indisputably brilliant. It's as speculative as anything Ness has written in the years since he appeared on the scene, yet the weird has rarely felt so real; the surreal so sweetly sincere.
Incredibly, it begins with the death — with the drowning — of our poor protagonist Seth, culminating in an "impact just behind his left ear [which] fractures his skull, splintering it into his brain, the force of it also crushing his third and fourth vertebrae, severing both his cerebral artery and his spinal cord, an injury from which there is no return, no recovery. No chance." (p.11)
Be that as it may, this end is a beginning as well, because Seth doesn't simply cease to exist. He's dead, yes, but his life, in some form, goes on...
"The first moments after the boy's death pass for him in a confused and weighty blur," (p.15) and they're apt to affect readers reeling from the mercilessness of Seth's postmortem-esque end equally. But time ticks ever on. "An impossible amount of time passes," in fact; be it "a day, a year, maybe even an eternity, there is no way he can know. Finally, in the distance, the light begins to slowly, almost imperceptibly change." (p.16)
Little by little, things become clearer. Somehow, Seth has awoken in his old house in England, where he and his little brother Owen were brought up before they moved to America. It seems uncannily alike the selfsame summer, he realises, that something indescribably horrible happened in his past; the very unfortunate event that led them to emigrate in the first place. Seth knows it's important, but he can't quite put his finger on what it was.
The village, in any event, is different. That is to say it's much the same as Seth remembers it in many ways, except unnaturally empty — there's no-one to be seen, certainly; there's no traffic, no noise, no nothing — plus it's covered in thick layers of what our protagonist assumes is undisturbed dirt and dust. And that's hardly the half of it. As Seth senses, "this place is more wrong than even all that's obvious. There's an unreality under all the dust, all the weeds. Ground that seems solid but that might give way any moment." (p.51) An indeterminate number of days later — days punctuated by dreams of experiences so vivid that he's practically reliving them — he reflects as follows:
It feels real enough. Certainly to the touch, and definitely to the nose. But it's also a world that only seems to have him in it, so how real can it be? If this is just a dusty old memory that he's trapped in, maybe it isn't really even a place at all, maybe it's just what happens when your final dying seconds turn into an eternity. The place of the worst season of your life, frozen forever, decaying without ever really dying. (p.79)
There are others, then, but Seth's first serious theory is that he's in hell, or some other aspect of the afterlife. Purgatory, perhaps. Speaking of which, please: leave your Lost baggage in the basement, where in all honesty it belongs. More Than This isn't that. What it is, exactly, is difficult to describe without spoiling the surprise. I'll only imply — as Ness does, very neatly indeed — that it has something to do with a pivotal point in our protagonist's past, a memory that Seth refuses to face... of an accident... a prolonged trauma, suffered by another, and perpetuated by his parents.
He stops. The memory is a dangerous one. He can feel himself teetering again, an abyss of confusion and despair looking right back up at him, threatening to swallow him if he so much as glances at it. [...] That can be for later, he tells himself. You're hungry. Everything else can wait. (p.47)
Only in this way, by focussing wholly on his immediate needs — by existing in physical and psychological isolation both figuratively and literally — can Seth keep on keeping on. He knows of no other option.
Besides Seth's death, so little happens in the opening chapters of More Than This that you'd think it'd be boring. But no. If you’ve come across Ness’s narratives in the past, this shall not shock. If you haven’t, your first order of business is to buy up his entire back catalogue — and be assured that the author’s newest novel is riveting, edge-of-your-reading-seat stuff from beginning to end.
The early sections are reminiscent of The Silent Land by Graham Joyce; something of a prose stylist himself, though Ness, I’d stress, has the edge. He effects in the reader a feeling of wonder and discovery paired with an impalpable sense of threat, very much mirroring Seth’s own outlook. Whilst we experience More Than This from the third-person perspective, its painstaking narration perfectly reflects our protagonist’s inexorable descent into despair. And as his awareness of the nature of this place escalates, ours does too.
There is more to More Than This than this... much more, yet many of the novel's successes depend on Seth's struggle to work out what in hell (ahem) has happened to him, where he is, and above all else, why. As such, there’s a whole lot I can't talk about. What I will say is that Ness is winningly aware of the expectations he's inviting here. After parsing one rather far-fetched rationalisation of his situation, Seth even echoes said sentiment:
“Crap sci-fi,” Seth mutters to himself. “Life is never actually that interesting. It’s the kind of story—“He stops again.
It's the kind of story where everything's explained by one big secret, like [...] what's real and what's not being reversed. The kind of story you watched for two hours, were satisfied with the twist, and then got on with your life.
The kind of story his own mind would provide to make sense of this place. (pp.247-248)
Well, you know... yes and no. Truth be told, the denouement is likely to prove divisive. Some, I’m sure, will call it a cop-out. I think it knows exactly what it’s about.
At times, More Than This is like a literary experiment that only by the grace of its creator resulted in a proper novel, but in the hands of a poised, perfectionist prose-smith like Patrick Ness, it's rarely less than life-affirming.