This review is about two things. It is first and foremost a review of the 2009 novel by Suzanne Collins- The Hunger Games, first in the YA dystopian trilogy. But it is also a lesson in reviewing, a lesson I am learning out loud on this blog.
I had never intended to read The Hunger Games. It seemed to me that it was another pop culture phenomena that would come and go like bushfire, sweeping through everyone I know and then leaving as soon as it came. Also, some of the books had an endorsement from Stephenie Meyer on the front. Now, long standing readers of my blog will know that I too was fooled by Twilight. I was fooled by the amount of press attention that series was given, by the number of people talking about the books, and by the fact that my younger sister (who never reads for recreation except in unusual circumstances) was into them. I read them and I am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed them. It was like being in a trance. A shallow, superficial trance. For a moment, I knew what it felt like to be Barbie. Of course, then I went to University and learnt my lesson- essentially that I had been fooled by bad writing disguised in a shiny wrapper. And that just because everyone is reading a book, it doesn't mean that it is a good book.
So, I was wary of The Hunger Games because I believed that, like Twilight, the people had been duped.
Even people I know, and respect.
Also, undertaking a thesis, I really couldn't see a logical reason to take a break and read them.
Then on Friday, the West Australian Newspaper published a review of the film by Mark Naglazas that changed my mind. Naglazas's review told a story- the story of the way meaning unfolded for him in the film (and also the book, because he made reference to it.) The story that he told was of a book that critiqued society's ridiculous fascination with reality T.V., while at the same time being a dystopian fiction, while at the same time being a young adult novel (here, I am somewhat skeptical. I can see younger readers having no trouble with the language used but some of the themes...) Simply put, the review was more than your average what-i-liked-and-what-i-didn't recap. It was a perfect example of a review, setting out what the author/ director's intentions were and stating whether or not Naglazas felt they had been realised, interacting with public speculation surrounding the film adaptation, discussing key themes and providing a particular reading, all without giving away the ending.
I immediately decided that I wanted to read the book. For a long time I've had the idea that I could write a short story about people on a reality television show, but these books seemed to take that idea to an extreme that I wasn't even clever enough to think of. Suddenly, the idea that these books were mere popularist fantasy seemed like a stupid one. On Saturday night, I borrowed the book. By bedtime on Sunday I was done.
The books centre around the idea that in the dystopian future, after everything has degenerated (due to the environment and human violence etc.) what was once North America becomes Panem- a nation of 13 districts and a capital. In the century before the book is set, the districts staged an uprising against the capital and were defeated, with one district (number 13) being wiped out entirely. As punishment, once a year a boy and a girl are taken from each district at random and put on a television show in which they must fight to be the last competitor alive. They must participate in Big Brother in the wild with weapons. The book's main character, Katniss Everdeen, finds herself the girl tribute from District 12 when she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Primrose.
What is it that makes a book 'unputtdownable'? In many cases, it is not a flawless grasp of good language skills. At times, Collins' sentences are too long and she uses the occasional cliche, as well as falling into the trap of telling rather than showing in some cases (largely less relevant ones). But her protagonist, Katniss, sees the world in an observant and consistent way. The reader is carried seamlessly along. Collins follows many of the key rules of good writing; she begins as close to the action as necessary and lets characters unfold along the way. Every character is motivated, is realised with specific details and seems well planned. If we do not get deep insight into them, it is because Katniss herself does not have it.
At times I found myself frustrated by this, particularly when it came to Katniss's reading of Peeta Mellark, her co-tribute in the Hunger Games. Peeta's feelings for Katniss become more and more obvious to the reader as the book wears on, but Katniss is too stubborn? obstinate? to think of them as anything other than a ploy for the cameras. This romance came off as somewhat contrived too, but it was meant to be. The whole thing, from Katniss's point of view, was a show for the cameras.
But what endears me to Katniss, despite her performing, is her ability to feel things despite her desperation not to. Collins truly has crafted a dystopian heroine- a sixteen year old with the mentality of someone much older who truly does appear to have evolved past having emotions to become a hunter. Katniss is NOT the Mary Sue she could be, despite the fact that, yes a male character does fall for her. She is Cinderella with a bow and arrow, except that she doesn't turn into a tittering fool the moment she realises that someone likes her.
The book leaves you with an unsettled feeling- how could it not? (Read it and see)
But it answers more questions than it raises. I can't really see how the second book will fit in... I guess I will have to find out.
I give The Hunger Games four out of five silver arrows.