More Than Ever
Only the second author ever to win the Carnegie Medal in consecutive years, Patrick Ness is one of the most exciting writers for teenagers around. His new book More Than This is just out.
The essence of More Than This, Patrick Ness says, is ‘all in the title and the last two words [I’m ready]’. The intense and sometimes harrowing story is infused with a conviction that no matter how much suffering life delivers, it is both liveable with and recoverable from if we can face our fear that the unknown might be worse than the known.
He hopes the story of 16-year-old Seth making his way in a grotesquely familiar but inhospitable post-apocalyptic world will resonate with young adults who feel, as Seth does, that they are all alone with their personal catastrophes and there is no hope of recovery.
‘I always wanted to write a story where you woke up and you were the only person on earth. It’s a classic set-up. And it lends itself to the yearning for something beyond what is available to you, which is part of being a teenager and which I always connect with writing for teenagers. All I want to say is that bad times are going to happen and they’re not going to be any easier because you’re young, but there is always, always more than what you are living through.’
More Than This is almost impossible to outline without spoilers, although the tipping point, when everyone has read the latest work from the double Carnegie winner and we can safely ponder over its many conundrums in company, cannot be far away.
Seth wakes up in a small English town that he recognises as his childhood home, apparently deserted for more than a decade and partly destroyed by fire. In his nightmares, he relives scenes from his more recent life in the US, where his family had relocated after a horrific incident when Seth was eight.
Both fictional worlds are populated: in England by two other young survivors and a malevolent robotic adversary, and in the US by Seth’s dysfunctional family, his high school friends and his gay lover. Both worlds seem equally real and equally troubled: in the English wasteland, Seth is simply living in reality the isolation he had previously felt to be true in his small town community in the US.
A series of news stories about teenage suicides, including gay teenagers, contributed to Ness’s picture of Seth’s predicament.
‘Life for gay teenagers is getting easier in some ways, depending on all kinds of circumstances like personality, family and where you live, but for some it is still very hard. I read those stories and thought that with a small change of circumstances that could have been me.
‘I got through my teenage years because I was very focused on getting to college and leaving a small town for a big city. When I got to the next step it was wonderful, scary and difficult all at once, like life is. It is a blessing and a curse as a teenager that how you feel takes over everything but it does change, and when you feel good you feel really good’
Yet Ness wouldn’t like to say that his book has a message. ‘Who wants to read a sermon? I don’t. I can’t write for any reason but simply responding to a story that is taking me over because I really want to tell it. I have to trust that the story will draw out whatever it is I might need to say. Anything else is putting the cart before the horse.’
However, Seth’s rehabilitation through connecting with his fellow wanderers in the perilous wasteland, Tomasz and Regine (both complex and absorbing characters who challenge and provoke Seth as much as they nurture him), is a universal message.
‘It’s not about preaching to the young, but it is the case that we can all benefit from meeting people we wouldn’t normally meet who don’t see the world like us.’ Seth is helped to adjust to his bleak new (and old) world not only by handily placed stores of date-expired groceries and camping equipment but by a book: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, one of Ness’s personal top 10 ‘unsuitable books for teenagers’ recommended in The Guardian. ‘He does refer to his world being created by words and there is a meta-fictional element in the book but I don’t want readers to get hung up on that: the emotional journey is more important.’
Seth’s dream-memories of his US home life also include patches of intense happiness and camaraderie and the signs that Tomasz and Regine have started to restore his sense of humour are among the most joyful moments in the book.
More Than This has had an ecstatic response in the first week after joint UK and US publication by Walker and Candlewick and the overall response, Ness says, is ‘this book messes with your head’, something he’s not unhappy about. ‘It’s set up so that the first section asks a question – how do you go on living when the worst has happened? The question is answered in the second section, but then the third section asks ‘hang on, are you sure?’.’
Seth’s point of view is constant, his past is clearly the past and his present is clearly the present but the story contains many imponderables. The way in which the two worlds are linked is plausible but open to question, and Ness is content for readers to reach their own solution. ‘I couldn’t possibly comment,’ he says most of the time, with a grin.
More Than This, Patrick Ness, Walker Books, 479pp, 978-1-4063-3115-8, £12.99, hbk
Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins, No Exit, 342pp, 978-1-8424-3035-4, £12.99 pbk
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education, regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.