Todd Hewitt has grown up thinking he knows everything about his world. He's the only boy in Prentisstown, where every other boy has now become a man. Where there are no women at all, anymore. And Prentisstown is the only town there is.
But what Prentisstown does have a lot of is Noise. All the Noise of all the men who live there - all of their thoughts, all of the time. There's no escaping it. Or so it seems, until the day when Todd finds something he previously thought was impossible. A single point of silence. And suddenly, everything Todd thought he knew is pulled out from under him.
Reading the first few pages of The Knife of Never Letting Go is like waking up inside a dream. There are things you recognise from your own life and things you don't, and every paragraph raises another question about where we are and what it all means. Why is that dog talking? Why are there thirteen months in a year? What are Spackle, and why are we scared of them? So many questions, and no immediate answers. The overall effect is disorientating and alien and genius all at the same time. And though you might not be sure right away that you love it, it's instantly clear that this book is something special.
The Knife of Never Letting Go takes place in New World, which isn't our world but is inhabited by humans much like us. The defining feature of this world is Noise, which is basically all those thoughts and feelings and memories that fill a man's head getting loose and spilling out so everybody can hear them. All the time, everywhere, whether he wants them to or not. On the page, this is represented by snippets of individuals' stream of consciousness overlapping in different fonts and different sizes. There's sadness and anger and all released at once it's chaos. Since too much of this would make for a confusing narrative, Ness helpfully keeps it to a minimum unless it's relevant to the story. However, Noise influences every aspect of the New World, from the dynamics of society to the path that Todd Hewitt's journey takes within it. Those who have Noise can't sneak up on a person, they risk betraying their own secrets every time someone else is near, and emotions like suspicion and fear spread through entire communities in a heartbeat. Anything that happens or has ever happened in this world is shaped by Noise, and the completeness of this vision is truly breathtaking.
At just short of thirteen New World years old, Todd Hewitt tells his story in a voice that is raw, distinctive and utterly convincing. He's a little surly at first, but I soon found myself warming to his gruff manner and oddly old-fashioned turn of phrase. Although I didn't feel that I'd gotten to know his human companion, Viola, as well as I would have hoped, I was hugely surprised by the way my feelings about his canine friend, Manchee, changed throughout the novel. I'm not generally keen on talking animals in books, and though Manchee initially seems like a one-dimensional annoyance he actually has an important role to play. The bond between boy and dog is a poignant one, and I challenge any reader not to get just a little bit choked up at Manchee's loyalty to Todd.
Much of The Knife of Never Letting Go is spent with Todd, Viola and Manchee on the road, as they undertake a frantic trek across unfamiliar terrain with the evil Aaron - among others - in hot pursuit. It's a tense journey filled with strange sights, inexplicable wonder and the occasional bloody conflict. Although we learn the terrifying truth about Prentisstown along the way, this is definitely not a standalone read: much is left unanswered, and the closing cliffhanger makes it literally impossible for a reader not to want to pick up the next book in the trilogy.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is a book like no other. Part fantasy, part sci-fi, it's fiercely imaginative and absolutely not to be missed. Boy or girl, young adult or not-so-young adult, this is one book that everyone should read. Extraordinary.
I'm a little behind the times on this one. The Knife of Never Letting Go was published in 2008 and frankly, I don't know what took me so long.
The final book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, Monsters of Men, is published this week in the UK. You can watch the awesome series trailer here, courtesy of Walker Books.