More Than This is a mind-blowing YA science fiction novel by Patrick Ness that’s so good it’s hard to believe. This is one of my all-time favourite books and just thinking about it makes me want to read it again.
“Whatever happened to you down there, whatever the world looks like now, that’s not how it always looks. That’s not how it’s always going to look. There’s more. There’s always more.”
The story begins with a boy drowning. He dies, but then… wakes up. Seth finds himself in a strange world, and slowly recognises it as the town where he grew up in England before his family moved to the States. But something is off. The place is abandoned, weeds grow in the roads, and there’s nobody else about. He assumes it’s his own personal hell:
“It feels real enough. Certainly to the touch, and definitely to the nose. But it’s also a world that only seems to have him in it, so how real can it be? If this is just a dusty old memory that he’s trapped in, maybe it isn’t really even a place at all, maybe it’s just what happens when your final dying seconds turn into an eternity. The place of the worst season of your life, frozen forever, decaying without ever really dying.”
The story slips between this new world – the hell or purgatory – and Seth’s old life in America. We gradually discover more about why the family moved and begin to understand why Seth has been so depressed and why he drowned. But we also discover more about Seth’s apparent afterlife and that’s where the story becomes more complex.
It’s hard to say too much about what happens without spoiling it – but, SPOILER ALERT! – in the afterlife Seth finds a weird coffin-like contraption in his old house and realises he was plugged into it before he awoke in this world. Then he meets two other (brilliant) characters, Regine and Tomasz, who also woke up in coffins.
Is he really dead? Or is there something else going on? The story bleeds back and forth between the two realities, constantly throwing you off balance so you’re never sure what’s real. Just when you think you’ve worked out what’s going on, something else happens that makes you doubt it. You swing back and forth between thinking he’s dead and experiencing the afterlife, and thinking he’s alive and the world really did go to pot. You think you’re going to find out for sure by the end, but – SPOILER! – you never do.
But the story doesn’t leave you hanging. The ending is perfect and Patrick Ness is in perfect control all the way through. You know he’s leading you somewhere, it’s just not where you think. Which is the whole point. As he explains in this interview:
“I kind of see it in three parts. Part 1 asks a question. Part 2 answers that question in a YA kind of way (which I don’t see as pejorative at all). But then Part 3 asks, are you sure? And it’s in that “are you sure” that’s the fun of the book, but also the very serious theme of the book. Learning to live without knowing what happens next. Learning to live with boundaries that shift and change. It’s what life is, after all.”
More Than This is a book full of hope and heartbreak; life-affirming in the face of despair and desolation. It is bleak in places, but also joyful and funny and bursting with imagination. The ambiguous ending is the meaning of the story, which is about uncertainty and doubt and yearning for more. All things that make us human.
The story embodies the gnostic search for truth and meaning in a world that doesn’t make sense. In fact, gnosticism may be the unspoken theme running through the whole book – the feeling that there’s something not quite right with the world, death and the search for liberation, and the eventual realisation of gnosis. A story about stories and how the stories we tell ourselves define and imprison us, and how to break free.
Life is inherently mysterious and you’ll never work it out. The key is love and connection and not being trapped by your circumstances: to love life and to value it no matter what happens, whether it’s real or not, and no matter how it turns out.
“Know yourself and go in swinging…”
>Read the first 10 chapters here: More Than This
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