Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking)


"The Noise is man unfiltered. And without a filter, man is just chaos walking."


Patrick Ness's opening book in the Chaos Walking trilogy,  The Knife of Never Letting Go,  garnered plenty of awards and overwhelmingly positive reviews when it was first released. Now, like so many other popular YA novels, it's headed for the big screen (Lionsgate bought the film rights).


Todd is the last innocent boy in a town of corrupted men on a planet that humanity had begun to colonize decades before. The endemic corruption is hardly a secret. Through some odd twist of fate, all men on the planet have the Noise:
“There ain’t nothing but Noise in this world, nothing but the constant thoughts of men and things coming at you and at you and at you… and them’s just the words, the voices talking and moaning and singing and crying. There’s pictures, too, pictures that come to yer mind in a rush, no matter how much you don’t want ‘em, pictures of memories and fantasies and secrets and plans and lies, lies, lies. 
Cuz you can lie in the Noise, even when everyone knows what yer thinking, you can bury stuff under other stuff, you can hide it in plain sight, you just don’t think it clearly or you convince yerself that the opposite of what yer hiding is true and then who's going to be able to pick out from the flood what’s real water and what’s not going to get you wet? Men lie, and they lie to themselves worst of all…Noise ain’t truth, Noise is what men want to be true, and there’s a difference twixt those two thing.”
Animals have the Noise too, though there thoughts are much simpler - and innocent. His dog, Manchee, weighs in with the occasional “Food, Todd?” or “Poo, Todd?” while sheep pretty much just think, “Sheep!” It’s easy to lose yourself in all the Noise. but Todd has found a way to remember who he is:
You close yer eyes and as clearly and calmly as you can you tell yerself who you are, cuz that’s what gets lost in all that Noise. I am Todd Hewitt. “Todd Hewitt,” Manchee murmers to himself beside me. I take a deep breath and open my eyes. That’s who I am. I’m Todd Hewitt.
Todd can tell that something dire is going to happen to him on his upcoming birthday. He can’t figure out details, but it’s clear that corruption is on the way. When his guardians help him and Manchee to flee from this imminent danger, the entire town comes after him.  Apparently, they have a lot more invested in his birthday than just an interest in cake.

Todd's desperate scramble leads him to Viola, a young girl whose scout ship from a new mother ship of colonists has crashed in his path. There were no women in his town (more on this in a later review of the series), so this is the first time he has seen anyone who is not male. As if that were not unsettling enough, he discovers she has no Noise: she can hear him, but he can’t hear her.

Unfortunately, the men in the town know she has landed, and they would very much like to corrupt her innocence as well. Todd and Viola manage to fight their way to freedom after an initial threat, but their journey is just beginning.


Todd and Viola are strangers in a strange land, separated from home and history. Is it any wonder that some of most poignant moments in the book are when they catch glimpses of how life was meant to be? When he stays with a family in one village, Todd hears the Noise of their young son:
“There are all kindsa warm thoughts towards his pa with just the word daddy repeated over and over again, meaning everything you'd want it to: askings about me, identifying his daddy, telling him he loves him, all in one word, repeated forever.”
I've said this before: if you want to know what matters to teens today, read the literature they embrace. Without fail, the YA books I have read feature kids who have lost one or more parents. They long for a family that means everything they want it to be, one in which a father worthy is not only there, but is worthy of love. When Todd and Viola pass a huge heard of peaceful animals singing/thinking “Here” in their Noise, Viola can’t hear it, but Todd is overwhelmed.
“It’s like the song of a family where everything’s always all right, it’s a song of belonging that makes you belong just by hearing it. It’s a song that’ll always take care of you and never leave you. If you have a heart, it breaks, if you have a heart that’s broken, it fixes.”
Unfortunately, these moments do not last. The men pursue them both relentlessly, carving a path of destruction through the settlements in which they seeks sanctuary. When his pursuers finally corner him, Todd discovers they don’t actually want to kill him: they want him to kill one of them. Somehow, Todd had become a symbol of the war between good and evil. The men want his innocent soul to share the stain of corruption. 
“Here’s your chance, Todd Hewitt, to eat from the Tree of Knowledge,” taunts one of them as he tries to get Todd to kill him. “Cross over from innocence to sin. If you can…Fulfill your purpose. Become a man. Fall.”
Todd has a knife. He could use it to kill. He could put it away. ("A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don’t. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again.”) Can he overcome the Noise, his past, and the dire circumstances around him, or will he ultimately simply become the man all these things have been relentlessly shaping him to be? As Mr. Ness has said, one of the questions of the book is a question we all must answer: How much of ourselves do we create? His soul, Viola’s life, and the future of their world may hinge on the battle that wages within. If the Noise is man unfiltered, maybe the solution isn’t to filter the Noise, but to change the man. 

The Knife of Never Letting Go is innovative and thought-provoking. It's also very grim, but not gratuitously so. Mr. Ness understands his audience; he knows the best stories are those that resonate with the readers. He told the Telegraph:
“I need to write about darkness and violence not gratuitously, but as truthfully and respectfully as I can… Then when I write about good things: trust, friendship and surviving loss, they will take me more seriously.”
I'll be honest: the trilogy does not end as well at it begins (reviews of the next two books are pending).  But as The Knife of Never Letting Go winds downs, a couple things are clear for Todd and Viola: Chaos walks among them, the Noise resounds around them, but hope lives within them. That's a message we all long to hear.

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