Friday, 19 February 2010

Book Review: The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

Read: September 2009

The Hunger Games
on one Tweet-sized chunk:
The Hunger Games
exciting, enjoyable, and escapist. A swashbuckling action-packed adventure guarunteed to engross readers of all ages.

I don’t know exactly when it was, but sometime last year I fell out of love with reading. Books that would usually be read in a couple of days were taking weeks to finish, whole weeks went by when I didn’t even think of picking up a book. It wasn’t that I was reading bad books but for some reason my mind wasn’t in a place to be transported by them as it often is.

Yet amidst the books I failed to get enthused by there were a few notable exceptions and first among them was The Hunger Games. I didn’t just read it from cover to cover. I devoured it. I read it whilst walking to work, I read it at my desk on my lunch break, I read it walking home again in the evening. I finished it at 4am on a weekday, then picked up and read the first chapter of the second book, Catching Fire, before finally snatching a couple of hours sleep. It is exciting, enjoyable, and escapist: some of the best things a work of fiction can be.

Set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future America known as Panem, The Hunger Games is an annual reality TV show that pits 12 boys and 12 girls against each other in a battle to the death. For the winner: fame and fortune. The other twenty-three competitors leave in body bags.

It’s a particularly repugnant society that could let such barbarism take place, and Panem is worse than repugnant. Ever since the Capitol won a civil war many years ago, it has ruled its twelve Districts with an iron fist. Movement between districts is utterly impossible, food strictly rationed. Any sign of rebellion is punishable with death. And the jewel in the crown of their control, the very demonstration of power and means by which it is exerted, lies in The Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen is sixteen-year-old growing up in District 12, a poor coal-mining area of the Appalachians. Her father was killed in a mining accident when she was just a child and ever since then her mother has suffered bouts of depression. For years she has supported the family, hunting illegally outside the electrified fences and learning to take care of herself. She is tough and skilled and absolutely terrified that her name will be selected to compete in The Hunger Games. But there is one thing she fears even more than certain death…

Combining commentary on the exploitation of Big Brother-style reality television with political angst, teenage defiance, and tonnes of action adventure violence,
The Hunger Games is as exciting as reading gets. Katniss and the other characters are utterly beguiling, their situation the stuff of nightmares. One cannot remain emotionally uninvolved or neutral. There are spectacular costumes that dazzle with subtle messages of defiance, people willing to spend all they have to keep their competitors alive. There can have been few societies – either in history or fiction – whose moral bankruptcy is so extensive as the wealthy and materialistic Capitol's. The eagerness with which they consume The Hunger Games is truly gruesome. They get bored if there aren't enough deaths, gamble on the fate of the competitors, tune in to 'round-up' shows that show the days dramatic battles. There is something of the Colosseum blood-lust to their viewing, but mixed with detached indifference. There is a gap between everyday reality and the movie style 'reality' of the TV.

I love the slightly disturbing direction that Young Adult fiction has taken in the past decade or so. Earlier this week I finally got around to reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and became aware of how adeptly this type of book can distil complex situations into emotionally involving portrayals of common humanity. The visceral reaction they produce reminds us that sometimes there really things which are just morally wrong.

The Hunger Games is one of them. If it weren’t for the breathless pace of the plot that keeps the pages being turned, one might cast the book away in disgust. Yet the violence, though ever present, is not gratuitous and always couched within a healthy sense of disgust for what is happening. It is humanity that shines through strongest, simple friendship developed in extraordinary situations.

The Hunger Games
is a swashbuckling action-packed adventure guaranteed to engross readers of all ages. The prose doesn’t shine, the premise shamelessly derivative (Battle Royale anyone?), the plot twists largely predictable. But sometimes that just doesn’t matter. If you are looking for a quick and involving escapist read then they don’t get much better than this.

Edition shown: US edition, Scholastic Press, September 2008, ISBN: 9780439023481, 384 pp
Current UK edition: Scholastic Books, January 2009, ISBN: 9781407109084, 464 pp

7.5 out of 10

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