The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
This book is the first of a series that takes place on a planet colonized recently by humans. The protagonist, Todd, is the youngest boy in Prentisstown, one of the most distant outposts. Prentisstown has no women; Todd grew up in the knowledge that a war with the planet’s original inhabitants had killed the women and released a toxin of some kind that made all the men’s thoughts audible in a constant stream they call Noise. The action of the story begins a month before Todd’s birthday when he becomes a man, when he meets a girl, Viola, in a swamp. They run away from Prentisstown together and begin to discover what really happened years ago to Prentisstown’s women. I enjoyed Todd’s folksy, humorous voice immensely. It reminded me of Huckleberry Finn: like Huck, Todd has a heart of gold, and is in the process of losing his innocence.
I was particularly impressed with the way the Noise worked on a deeper level as a metaphor for “othering,” as a psychological explanation for how and why we separate into “us” and “them.” Because on this planet, everyone can hear men’s thoughts, but women’s thoughts stay private, men have a sort of automatic knowledge and trust of each other, while women seem untouchable and mysterious to them in comparison. They find it hard to trust women without being able to read their thoughts as they can a man’s. Todd and Viola encounter several towns where the people dealt with this problem in different ways: in Carbonel Downs there was a kind of sexual apartheid, in Far Branch there was a matriarchy, and Prentisstown, where Todd grew up, had the worst solution of all. It was sometimes jarring to hear the words Todd applied to Viola because of growing up in this world: “it,” “void,” “empty,” “nothing.” This denigration of the other comes from fear and vulnerability, the precarious position of being totally known by someone who you cannot know equally well, whose difference makes them seem unknowable. Toward the end, when Todd realizes he cares about Viola, he says he does know her and hear her Noise, showing that love can break down the barriers created by prejudice.
Fair warning: this is a very brutal and violent book, the kind where you get attached to the characters and then watch them suffer.
Sometimes the plot was far-fetched and extreme, like the villain that wouldn’t die, the final explanation for his pursuit of Todd, and Todd’s own multiple near-death experiences. It was sometimes hard to believe that secrets could be kept at all in a world of mind-readers, and there were times when I thought Ness might have been selective about applying the rules of his world to the action for the sake of narrative effect or convenience. But overall, it was a fun, action-packed book that I’d recommend to anyone who likes this genre. It might be a particularly thought-provoking book for a boy who’s resistant to reading books about girl protagonists. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. A studio has bought film rights for it, but I haven’t heard anything about casting or filming yet.