The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first in the Chaos Walking series. It introduces us to Todd Hewitt, who is a month away from becoming a "man" at 13 years old. He lives in a town on the New World that is populated only by men - men who constantly hear each other's thoughts, known as "Noise". The women all died long ago of some germ released by the Spackle, New World's native inhabitants - who were also wiped out in a war with the humans. But one day Todd, with his faithful dog Manchee, discovers something in the woods that literally changes everything.
I was initially drawn to this book because of the premise - not to mention enthusiastic recommendations from friends - and I was not disappointed. From the very first pages, you're drawn into Todd's world and captivated by his journey. The writing style is unique and vivid, with Todd's voice written phonetically to beautifully convey his character - uneducated but intelligent, lonely but incredibly caring, inexperienced but open-minded, surrounded by bad things but inherently good. The prose might not appeal to everyone, riddled as it is with purposely misspelled/mispronounced words, but I loved it. It immediately creates a strong picture of who Todd is, and it's hard not to love him. He's flawed, he makes mistakes, but he is so very human.
The Noise is also communicated in a creative way - through different fonts and font sizes, scattered over the pages. It really does create a stream-of-consciousness feeling, and it's particularly interesting when it's used as a contrast to the actual dialogue spoken between characters. It's a fascinating exploration of how our inner lives contrast with our external lives, and how we probably really don't want to know what other people are thinking.
Interestingly, Ness also gives voice and Noise to all the animals in the book. Which might sound ridiculous, but it is SO well done. Manchee, Todd's dog, is such a fully-fledged character, and his voice is exactly what you would expect of a dog if he could talk. He worries about food and pooing and squirrels, but most of all, his human. I really, really, really love Manchee.
I also love Viola, the first girl Todd ever meets. She is one hell of a character. Strong, determined, caring, intelligent, brave, fierce - this character just made me so, so happy. I adored seeing the way she and Todd interacted and came to care about each other. They each have to make tough, terrible choices, but they get through everything together. This is Todd's story, but Viola is just as important as a character. She has agency and strength and everything you want in a heroine.
The other characters are also brilliant. Ben and Cillian, Todd's adoptive parents, are lovely and heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. The bad guys - Aaron, Davey Prentiss and the Mayor -are creepy and complicated and so deliciously awful. The more minor characters are all just as fantastically crafted, each standing out from the pages, no matter how little time they actually appear on them.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is action-packed and completely unputdownable. Although I say that, and yet there was one part where I had to put it down (before picking it up and devouring it again a couple of days later). Something happened that I wasn't expecting and it totally destroyed me. I hated that it happened, and I needed a breather, but in the end I appreciated that this is not a book - or a series - where bad things don't happen. Not by a long shot. It might be in a fantastical setting in a futuristic time period, but at its core this is a story about real life, about what makes us human and about how the choices we make shape us. Choices that are as difficult, emotional, messy and chaotic as we are.
When it comes down to it, we really are all chaos walking.
"Here's what I think," I say and my voice is stronger and thoughts are coming, thoughts that trickle into my Noise like whispers of truth.
"I think maybe everybody falls," I say. "I think maybe we all do. And I don't think that's the asking."
I pull on her arms gently to make sure she's listening.
"I think the asking is whether we get back up again."
Published: 2008, Walker Books
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