The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first installment in the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. The book has accrued rave reviews since its publication in 2008, and was awarded the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (though I’d say that, while most young adult fiction could be read and understood by children, this series definitely lies on the more ‘adult’ side of YA, and needs an older audience to be fully appreciated in all its gut-wrenching glory). Despite its critical acclaim, I knew very little about the series before reading The Knife of Never Letting Go; I picked it up solely because I was engrossed by the first line: ‘The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say’. If you ever need to convince me to read anything, just give a starring role to a talking animal.
The world inhabited by the book’s protagonist, Todd Hewitt, is set up as distorted and alien from the outset: Todd roams around swamps once inhabited by strange beings known as Spackles, and quickly reveals that there are no living women left in his village. His world is alien in the true sense of the word: this is not earth, but rather a New World, visited and colonised by settlers from the overcrowded Old World. This setting has great implications, the most pervasive of which is the concept of Noise. This is the name given to the thoughts of the Prentisstown residents, which are broadcast out live from their heads, often as clearly as if they were spoken aloud. In this climate, it’s impossible to harbour secrets. Or so it would seem; except, however, that Todd soon discovers everything he has believed about Prentisstown is false and sets out to unravel the truth. Todd’s own Noise proves problematic, as he quickly learns that Prentisstown residents are not exactly well received elsewhere in the New World.
The concept of Noise is stunningly inventive and original, and was one of my favourite aspects of the novel. Todd meets a girl who projects no Noise, and while this seems initially like an advantage, it raises many questions about human relationships: how we can truly know someone if the entirety of their inner life is hidden from us? Noise also functions as a creative means of literalising the idea of thought-control: Prentisstown is a totalitarian society in which every private thought is made public. There are no schools in the settlement, and most books have been burned, so even the knowledge available to its inhabitants is limited. The Knife of Never Letting Go raises probing questions about the dangerous knowledge and difficult choices faced by Todd as he enters into manhood. Like most YA fiction, it’s in many regards the quintessential ‘coming of age’ story, but also presents an unflinchingly brutal and cleverly constructed re-visioning of this classic scenario.
The Knife of Never Letting Go ended on a humdinger of a cliffhanger, so I’m itching to pick up The Ask and The Answer tomorrow!