It seems like I've been reading quite a lot of Young Adult books this year, which is not so usual for me lately... There's been some great books ('The Piper's Son' did not disappoint) and some not so great. One of the most intriguing was 'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins, a book which came with significant hype and some different expectations. One friend told me it was pover-rated, another thought it was the best thing ever. In this situation I tend to approach a book with caution, and start out looking for flaws. And there were flaws. But then again I think, is that really fair? Anyway, back to the book...
'The Hunger Games' is set in what appears to be a dystopian future USA, which is divided into a number of 'districts' all ruled by the 'Capitol'. Life in the outer districts is pretty bleak, with little food, hard work and rigid control. To top it off, each year the Capitol takes two children, a boy and a girl (called 'tributes'), to fight to the death in a televised contest (the titular Hunger Games) where only one person can come out alive. The protaganist of the story is Katniss Everdeen, a girl from 'District 12' who supports her family by hunting in the out-of-bounds forest with her friend Gale after the death of her father in a coal-mining accident. When her beloved younger sister is drawn out of the hat to fight in the arena, she takes her place in what looks to be a fairly hopeless fight (well, unless you're a reader, in which there really only seems to be one outcome).
I have to say that although this feels like a stupid quibble, I found the names pretty off-putting at first. Katniss? It later turns out she is named after a tuber- effectively her name translates as 'potato' (although 'Kumera' would make a pretty name...). Of course, that's pretty quickly overcome, and this book really does drag you in pretty fast.
A more serious problem for me is that I thought I knew how the book ended before I started it, but it turns out I was wrong. *spoiler warning* I was waiting for all the contestants to join together and take on the arena, but that doesn't actually happen. Admittedly that would not really work, and I was curious to see how the author would pull it off, but it was still a little bit dissapointing, particularly when they introduced the characters of the 'career tributes'- who have been trained specifically for the games and are keen on killing and winning. It is particularly unfair to judge a book for not having the ending you expected, and really the positive of this was that I was left guessing as to what would happen.
So what does happen? Katniss survives, along with Peeta, the other District 12 tribute, through a combination of luck, fighting ability and appeal to the sponsors. Sponsors have the ability to provide vital supplies to the tributes during the game, and the main appeal of Katniss and Peeta is their manufactured love story. Which turns out not to be so manufactured on Peeta's side, which comes as a surprise to, well, nobody, except perhaps Katniss. And I spent much of the book wondering how she could be so dense. Apart from the fact that she is desperately overthinking everything in order to survive. In the end I could not decide if it was accurate character representation or just irritating. Maybe because the character of Katniss never really worked that well for me- she doesn't do emotions well, not the most sympathetic trait. My level of sympathy for her varied quite a bit throughout the book. Peeta I liked, probably because I have a weakness for the dogged, determined guy with an unrequited love for the heroine that will probably be returned before the story is done. Loved the end of 'Vanity Fair', cried like a baby for 'A Tale of Two Cities', set to be a sucker for Peeta here. I'm interested to see through the series who Katniss chooses- Peeta or Gale. Or neither. Not an easy choice.
Suzanne Collins got the idea for writing this book while watching reality t.v., at least according to Wikipedia, and Abigail Nussbuam has written about why she thinks the novel is a good portrayal of reality t.v., and I don't know if I have anything to add to that. One of the first things that sprung to mind for me was Roman gladiatorial competitions, but once I thought of the phrase 'bread and circuses' I also realised the role that bread plays in this book.
Firstly, circuses. I really liked the political aspect to this story, the idea that while the Hunger Games is a form of entertainment for the masses it is also a form of threat and an exercise of power. Particularly for those in the poorer districts, the significance of the game is that it kills their children, and they are motivated to watch mostly through fear. But while the Capitol may be good at providing circuses, it is very bad at providing bread. People in District 12 are starving, and even the baker eats stale loaves. Two incidences that I can think of in the book hinge on bread: Peeta (the baker's son) gives a loaf of bread to a young Katniss when she is starving- an act of compassion and love, and the people of District 11 send a loaf of bread to Katniss in thanks for her attempts to care for the female District 11 tribute. Apparently the bread of each district is easily distinguishable. Once I started thinking about bread it was difficult to ignore the fact that the country is called 'Panem'. Even if this link is really there though, I'm not sure what it means. Panem is unable to feed it's people, they have to feed each other? One of the key ingredients of Governance is missing? The Capitol is so out of touch with the people's needs it can't provide for them? The country is run purely on fear, every good thing is distorted?
On that note, I have to say that my feelings towards this book are somewhat ambiguous. I wanted to keep reading, it really drew me in, but I also wanted to pick holes. At the end I wanted to read the sequel, I'm keen to see what happens, and in the end I probably enjoyed this book more than it annoyed me. I am also curious- Abigail Nussbuam reviewed 'The Hunger Games' along with another, called 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', which she thought was better. The person who enthusiastically recommended 'The Hunger Games' has also since read 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', and judged it to be the better book. Maybe that should be next on the 'to be read' pile?