Tuesday 14 September 2010

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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"Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. But Katniss has been clse to death before — and survival, for her, is second nature. The Hunger Games is a searing novel set in a future with unsettling parallels to our present. Welcome to the deadliest reality TV show ever..."


The literary zeitgeist has a way of latching onto the oddest things. Who would have thought, in the early going, that Harry Potter would become such a sensation? That the angsty bumbling of a boy wizard would enrapture the entire world? Certainly not the innumerable publishers who sent J. K. Rowling's manuscript packing, nor the critics whose decidedly so-so reviews of the first book in the series alluded not at all to its trend-setting potential. Did anyone, I wonder, have an inkling that a certain chastity parable involving a teenage girl, a handsome werewolf and a sparkly vampire would prove so successful that it stood to change the landscape of young adult fiction forever? I dare say they did not. Certainly Stephanie Meyer's cumbersome prose gave no indication that Twilight would be the next Next Big Thing.

And yet, here we are: a glut of paranormal romance, so-called, has bullied the age-old tradition of genre literature off all but the biggest bookstore's shelves. There's a new Harry Potter knock-off with grand designs on Rowling's readership every other week. At least with The Hunger Games, you can see the throughline between the initial concept and its overwhelming success. Suzanne Collins' series is a riff on reality television, itself something of a modern cultural touchstone. In particular, The Hunger Games is a speculative bent on the late and not-at-all lamented Big Brother, in which Collins conjures up a post-collapse society whose overlords keep the impoverished people in check (and so stave off any potential rebellion) by insisting that each year, their children must fight for their very lives in the titular competition.

Katniss Everdeen is one such subject. Sixteen years old, she's a hunter, particularly at home with a bow and a quiver of arrows in the wilderness beyond District 12. She's also the sole breadwinner for her poor family, including her mother, a bereaved medicine woman, and her little sister Prim. When at the annual Reaping, where those children who will compete in the hunger games - "tributes," the Capitol has it - are drawn from a great glass ball, Prim's name is called out, Katniss volunteers to take her place. It's as good as a death sentence: of the 24 tributes, composed of a girl and a boy from each of the 12 segregated Districts, only one will live to tell the tale. In the arena, it's a case of kill or be killed while all of Panem watches, and though Katniss is determined to triumph over the other children, she'll have to pay a high price indeed if she hopes to survive.

So. The Hunger Games is Battle Royale, basically, or The Running Man with teenagers in Schwartzenegger's stead. Going in, given that rather uninspired synopsis and the hallmark of mediocrity with which the likes of Meyer and Rowling have belaboured YA literature, I'd expected at best functional prose, a pandering plot and cardboard characters - the better to relate to as large a segment of the presumed audience as possible. Imagine my surprise, then, to see that Collins has crafted the most sophisticated and engaging all-ages sensation in decades. The Hunger Games mightn't be particularly original, but it's wonderfully done. Better written than any of the Harry Potter novels, bar none, and a huge improvement, needless to say, on the low bar Twlight and its ill-executed ilk have set.

Collins' expertise shines through The Hunger Games from prose to pace to plot - predictable though that lattermost may be - but beyond its technical proficiency, what truly sets this novel apart is its acute sense of awareness. Some of the Big Brother references are a bit much, I'll say; the live reaction to the final eviction (by evisceration), for instance, is an over-egging of the allegorical pudding. Otherwise, Collins plays her hand perfectly. Katniss' awareness of the audience watching her every move also works to accommodate a metatextual awareness of us, of the reader. Katniss has seen the hunger games in the past - in Panem, it's the only time of the year when the Districts can be assured of a reliable power supply - and so she understands our expectations inasmuch as she graps what the voyeuristic viewer wants from her. And she plays with them throughout the competition. Her romance with Peeta, a baker's son head over heels in love with her, begins as a calculated thing, strictly for the audience's benefit. Katniss smiles for the invisible, omnipresent cameras at appropriate moments, behaves in such a way as to play on our sympathies, to win our admiration or our pity. She puts on a show; she is as performative as characters come.

There is, too, a maturity to The Hunger Games that seems tantamount to a declaration of war on young adult literature as we know it. Collins does not skirt around the conflict inherent in the competition at the dark heart of her dystopian narrative: she has Katniss deal with death and devastation from up close, and though she pitches casual brutality, she treats the actual fact of the first-hand horrors Collins' thoughtful protagonist must face down of herself fall victim to with grace and good sense - never more so than with regards to Rue, the youngest of all the tributes, a twelve year old girl from a District which sounds by all rights worse even than Katniss' own, where the poor are routinely found dead from starvation or cold. Her ultimate fate in the games is as good as a foregone conclusion, as it is with all the other so-called contestants - not excluding Katniss - and Collins paints her perfectly, with a delicate brush rather than the broad and obvious strokes so many all-ages authors would surely condescend to.

At the close of The Hunger Games, the curtains have come down on the grim competition Collins' novel is named after. There are two more books to come before the trilogy's done, and it remains to be seen what the author will do with the world she's dreamed up. We've only seen a fraction of it, after all: the larger part of this first chapter is set in an area purpose-built for the tributes to duke it out in, and the sense we have of what's outwith those walls is impressionistic at best. Collins could simply repeat herself, have book two revolve around another hunger games, though I dearly hope she has a grander plan for the characters and concepts iterated on herein. In the end, only time will tell. One thing's for sure, however: The Hunger Games is a fantastic novel. Relentlessly pacey, character-driven and pitch perfect, it'll leave you - dare I say it? - hungry for more.


The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
September 2008, Scholastic

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  1. Been reading your blog for a while now and I dare say, you could get me excited to read the phone book. Definitely adding The Hunger Games to my stack by the bed. Thanks again for a brilliantly composed and honest review.

  2. You're going to make me blush, CRAusmus. Glad you enjoyed it - and the book totally is worth your time. The phone book... not so much - though I did rather enjoy the X section! ;)

    Maybe you'll enter the big Hunger Games competition, see if you can't win a copy of the trilogy rather than having to buy them?

  3. Applause applause applause. Loved. That. Book.

  4. I would do that Niall if I was just lucky enough to be a brit...LOL...

    No worries though. It will find itself in my stack soon enough. Just have to put it at the bottom and hope the wife doesn't notice it got slightly taller..LOL