This book came highly recommended: before I ever even considered picking it up, I must have seen half a dozen posts from friends giving it four and five stars. Even the tough guys in my acquaintance also mentioned how touching they found it. So I was more or less prepared.
To me, the actual story is reasonably predictable. I guessed the content of Conor’s nightmare, for example, and the ultimate motive of the yew tree monster. For all that, the book remains powerful: Conor’s isolation, his reactions to his mother’s cancer, all come across perfectly; he feels like a real kid, bearing up under something horrible. He’s not artificially sympathetic: he does the dishes and hangs out the laundry for his sick mother, but he also has a destructive anger inside him. He’s ungrateful towards a friend and vindictive towards those around him… But he’s also alone and coping badly with a situation he isn’t adult enough for. This isn’t saccharine-sweet: he’s a kid, and he acts like one. He’s mature in some ways and not in others.
The real payoff here is the ending; the yew tree is interesting, the stories it tells, and it’s true there are some truths in fairy tales and fables. But it’s what the yew tree does for Conor, and what he then does with that understanding, which really makes this book hit home. I know why the tough guys who read it might’ve cried. That resolution is beautifully done, whatever I think of how obvious the lead-up was.