A twelve-year-old boy, Conor, is forced into early adulthood when his mother is laid low by a terminal illness. Conor’s father is remarried and lives across the ocean in America (the book is set in England.) When Conor’s mother has to be hospitalized, Conor must go to stay with his grandmother. This is undesirable both because Conor longs for a return to normality and because his grandmother— while a fundamentally caring woman—is much more uptight and prim than Conor’s mother.
Conor has been terrorized by a recurring nightmare of late, and when the Yew tree from outside his window comes to life, the Yew tree monster is, relatively speaking, a welcome relief from the much more dire scene that confronts Conor nightly in his nightmare. The Monster informs Conor that it will tell the boy three stories over multiple nights, and when it is done Conor will be required to return the favor by telling the Monster one true story in return. The book plays out with the monster telling Conor stories as well as encouraging the boy to act out to release the building tension that threatens to destroy him. All the while, the story builds toward a moment of reckoning. The idea of repressed rage building into a monster of its own is central to this work.
The book is generally classed as “low fantasy”—a genre in which a limited supernatural element barges into an otherwise real world story. However, it can arguably be read as more psychological in nature. When the Monster visits, Conor finds evidence of his presence— e.g. leaves and berries—but to my recollection no one ever sees such evidence besides Conor, and so the reader is free to view these clues as harbingers of a descent into madness.
The book, itself, has an interesting back story. Apparently, the idea came from Siobhan Dowd, a writer of children’s / YA literature, when she had cancer. Patrick Ness was brought in after Dowd died to take her characters and premise and turn them into a book. Ness completed the book, which was made into a film a couple of years back.
I’d highly recommend this book. It builds and maintains tension throughout the story and is highly readable.