They came to New World from beyond the stars, looking for a purer existence, and made their home in Prentisstown, at the edge of a swamp. There was tragedy, of course: indigenous creatures known to the settlers as ‘Spackle’ released a germ that killed all the women of Prentisstown and half the men, and left the survivors broadcasting their thoughts to each other in a stream of what they now call ‘Noise’.
Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, though in a month’s time he will turn thirteen and so become a man. One day, whilst out in the swamp with his dog Manchee (who can speak, but only a word or two at a time), Todd finds a pocket of silence – a place where there’s no Noise. This shouldn’t be possible but, as Todd is about to find out, a lot of things he believes about life and the world are actually wrong.
When Todd returns home, he tells Ben and Cillian (who raised him after his mother died) about the ‘hole in the Noise’ – but doesn’t get the response he expects. Ben and Cillian tell Todd he must leave Prentisstown immediately; they won’t explain why, but give the boy a knife and his mother’s diary which, they say, will tell him all he needs to know. Unfortunately for Todd, he can’t read. Still, off he goes with Manchee, soon finding that not only are there females on New World (Tood meets a strange girl named Viola, who has no Noise of her own), but also that Prentisstown is not the only settlement on the planet, and that there’s a dark secret at the heart of the town which explains why an army of its inhabitants are marching after him…
Oh, but this is a wonderful book. First of all, Todd is a superbly realised character. Ness tells his tale in a first-person dialect that sounds like a real voice; finds the right balance between being different without becoming annoying; and reveals as much about Todd as anything he does or says. Here, for example, is Todd describing the difference between his and Viola’s accents:
‘Her lips make different kinds of outlines for the letters, like they’re swooping down on them from above, pushing them into shape, telling them what to say. In Prentisstown, everyone talks like they’re sneaking up on their words, ready to club them from behind.’
There is a downside, though, to having such a strongly ‘present’ first-person narrator, which is that the secondary characters aren’t fleshed out as much. Viola’s character is quite rounded, but those furthest from Todd (such as his adult nemeses in Prentisstown) come across as quite flat (but how could they not, when Todd hardly knows them?). Still, that’s a price worth paying to have the joy of reading Todd’s words.
Ness also uses Todd’s voice to great effect when writing action sequences. His two main techniques are long, breathless sentences full of conjunctions; and extended sequences of single-sentence paragraphs. They really do make the story feel more kinetic; which helps balance out the linear nature of the plot, which is a pretty standard race to the end. In other circumstances, this might be a problem; here, the pages fly by, so it doesn’t matter.
The book’s title is interesting. The formulation ‘The Noun of Adjective’ in the title of a science fiction or fantasy story usually indicates a thing of great power or importance. I was really pleased to see that this novel’s titular knife is just an ordinary hunting-knife — there’s nothing mystical about it. And yet, the knife is highly significant for what it represents to Todd; it’s his symbol of being a man, it gives him the power to do things he couldn’t otherwise do (such as killing), and to let go of the knife is to relinquish that power. So naturally, there is violence, bloodshed, and death in The Knife of Never Letting Go; but these things are not gratuitous or glorified, as Todd comes to realise that violence is not the answer, whatever the question. (That’s not the only way in which Todd grows up during the book; the changes in the way he sees Viola are well handled by Ness, as Todd experiences the first stirrings of feelings he cannot name, but which we recognise.)
Of course, there are problems with the book. One quibble I have is that it’s implied that Todd’s narrative voice is his Noise, and occasionally Viola (who can hear Todd’s Noise even though she has none of her own) will react to something in the narration; but not as often as she would if it were Todd’s Noise. I didn’t like that sense of Ness’ cherry-picking to suit the plot. And a few things aren’t explored as fully as they could have been: we don’t see enough of the Spackle; nor, to the best of my recollection, do we learn the significance of the ‘hole in the Noise’. But, as the cliffhanger ending reminds us, there’s time yet, for a sequel is coming. And one advantage of reading this excellent book in the year after its publication is that I don’t have to wait long for that sequel.