Todd Hewitt won't be a man for 30 more days, the only boy left in a world full of men. Noisy men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise, every man and boy can hear the thoughts of every other man and boy, whether they want to or not. But there's something secret about the way boys become men in this place, and before he knows it, Todd is running for his life from these men, with his talking dog, because of something impossible: silence.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is a powerful book and a bleak one, exploring a dystopian world through the candid, engaging voice of Todd as he narrates his Homeric journey. The world building is impeccable, believable, and thorough enough that as Todd begins to discover the discrepancies between his version of history and the truth, the reader is mostly carried right along with his shock (though as Todd progresses on his journey, his revelations become easier to guess).
Todd's own voice, his tone and diction, are what elevate this from being a simple adventure sci-fi story to something much more literary and engrossing. Ness' use of language grabbed me from the first page — from the very first sentence — and refused to let go.
In Todd's first encounter with the preacher, Aaron, he describes the man's face: "He smiles down at me, thru that beard of his, smiles down at me in the grass. A smiling fist." And later, "I can smell the breath that comes outta his mouth, smell the weight of it, like fingers grabbing for me."
Every word of this book feels carefully chosen and executed, from the ones the ill-educated Todd misspells to the words of the Noise, picked out in different fonts to convey the intrusion of another person's thoughts on your own.
And each action feels carefully chosen as well. Everything in this book is a larger symbol for any of a multitude of different topics, covering everything from modern issues like gender equality, violence against women, xenophobia, the hypocrisies of organized religion, and information overload to archetypes as universal as The Fall.
The major symbol of Todd's journey is his knife, given to him by one of his adopted fathers when he is forced to run from his town. Todd wrestles with it and its purpose from the very beginning foreshadowing its significance in the final act.
"But a knife ain't just a thing, is it?" he ponders as he is presented his first real opportunity to use it. "It's a choice, it's a thing you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don't. A knife takes a decision our of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again."
The knife is the symbol of Todd's arduous, violent journey toward manhood. It physically represents the choice he has to make about what kind of man he will be: the kind his adopted father, Ben, wants him to be, or the kind Aaron and the rest of the men of the town want him to be. Once Todd knows the true nature of the choice, it seems like it would be cut and dried, and in a fairy tale land where the only ending is happily ever after, it would be.
But Todd's life is anything but a fairy tale, and the fact that his choice is an impossible one, even with the blatant forces of good and evil staring him in the face, raises this book to the level of literature instead of merely adventure.
The knife is alive.
As long as I hold it, as long as I use it, the knife lives, lives in order to take life, but it has to be commanded, it has to have me tell it to kill, and it wants to, it wants to plunge and thrust and cut and stab and gouge, but I have to want it as well, my will has to join with its will.
I'm the one who allows it and I'm the one responsible.
But the knife wanting it makes it easier.
But the knife barely scratches the surface of the deeper meaning woven into this book. I'd be extremely interested to read a feminist interpretation of the book, as the roles of women and their relationships to men play out across the warped stage of this planet cursed with men who can hear one another's thoughts. As it is, this book has stayed with me since I picked it up, and after I put it down. I'm still thinking about it, worrying it around in my brain, trying to glean more meaning out of it.
Marked for ages 14 and up, this isn't a book for young readers, no matter how precocious, but mature readers who can handle the literary tone will devour it and — word of warning — be extremely anxious for the next in the series when they reach the entirely unsatisfying cliff-hanger ending.