Monday, December 19, 2011

Review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This series has been recommended to us several times, but to be honest, I was reluctant to read it because it is Sci-Fi and Y.A.  Technically, Fangs for the Fantasy is primarily focused on urban fantasy, and so I used that as my excuse to avoid this series.  After receiving what amounts to the umpteenth recommendation, I finally broke down to read this book, firm in the belief that it cold never live up to all the hype that it has received from the fangs community and the blogosphere.  Well folks, I was wrong.  This book was so amazing that I read it in one sitting, pausing only to eat and go to the bathroom.  It is a rare thing for any novel to captivate me this way, let alone a Y.A. novel.

The novel takes place in a future earth in a country called Panem, which essentially consists of what we would consider to be North America.  Panem is divided into 13 different districts, and a capitol which is ruled by an extremely authoritarian government.  Each year the Capitol, hosts a tournament called The Hunger Games, to punish the districts for an earlier rebellion.  Each district must surrender one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18.  They are placed into a special arena, where they not only must survive the elements, but each other. All contestants are drawn by lottery.

The two contestants chosen from district 12 Primrose Everdeen and Peeta Mellark. When Primrose is chosen, her sister Katniss cannot bear the idea of Primrose in the games, and she volunteers to go in her stead.  Katniss has been the main provider for her mother and her sister since her father's death in the mines.  Each year she puts more than one entry into The Hunger Games lottery, because it allows her family the necessary grain that they need to survive the year.  She supplements their food by hunting illegally, and trading the meat that her family does not consume for the basic necessities of life.  Peeta is the bakers son, and though he has never really truly known hunger, he has never known prosperity.  Life in district 12 is hard, and it is not uncommon for people to die of hunger, accidents in the mine, or disease.  Peeta is brought to Katniss' attention one day when he risks a beating to give her two loaves of bread to prevent her from starving.  Though she is grateful, she can never let go of the feeling of owing him.

In the lead up to the game, Peeta allows it to be known that he has loved Katniss for a long time, setting up a sort of tragic Romeo and Julliet scenario for the audience watching the games at home.  Throughout the game Peeta and Katniss struggle to survive.  Katniss believes that Peeta is playing up the star crossed lover angle in order to encourage the sponsors to have special treats dropped into the game for them, and so she plays along.  As the tension build, as I reader I found myself rooting for Katniss and Peeta despite the odds staked against them.

Even though The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian setting, this is one of the best treatments of class that I have ever read.  As Katniss interacted with the various characters we learned just how impoverished the districts were, all to feed the insatiable need of the Capitol, and yet without the labour provided by the districts those in the Capitol would surely starve. District members were seen as movable chess piece without any value and expected to cheer at the slaughter that happened in the arena.  The very fact that their children could be forcibly removed from them sent the message that they were indeed helpless.

The Capitol's behaviour and the set up of this society very much mimicked the predatory behaviour of our current capitalist state.  Just as Capitol residents lived well with access to medication and good doctors, jobs that required minimal physical labour, and plentiful food, so to do the top 1% of our society.  The Capitol also reminded me of the brutality of the Roman Empire, in which gladiators fought in the Colosseum to the death, for the entertainment of an often fickle crowd. Only blood and death could cure their boredom.  In The Hunger Games, when contestants were not actively killing each other, events were manufactured to ensure the death of one of the participants lest the viewers become bored.  

Connected to the class issues, I think there were a lot of messages about forms and methods of oppression and how the oppressive state works. The Hunger Games don’t exist just to amuse the decadent citizen in the capital - they are a clear message to the people in the districts. They are forced to watch, forced to celebrate them - it’s a message of worthlessness, that their lives don’t matter, that their children don’t matter. In addition, the districts are isolated from each other - they can’t communicate or contact each other except through the games, and the games are inherently antagonistic. The districts are only allowed to meet each other in conflict, through a setting that sets them against each other. And we see how this divide-and-conquer works with the Career Tributes who train to win the games for the carrot offered for the win as well as their own survival. In addition, they have constant fear presented not only through violent control, oppression and repressive laws, but also through the constant message of the destroyed district 13. We see many methods of societal control used - and while they are taken to their greatest extremes, we can see them all in our own history - and reflections in our modern world.

Beyond the issue of class, I will say that this book has all straight characters and one of the key plot points revolves around a straight romance.  Unlike most dystopian books, people of colour are not entirely erased but I do think that author tends to lean on racial ambiguity at times to allow the reader to create their own vision of what a character looks like.

The Hunger Games represents yet another example of a strong female protagonist.  Katniss knows exactly what she wants and she is not afraid to fight for it.  From the moment she takes her sisters place in the game, her one objective is to survive. What I love about Katniss is despite the fact that so much is out of her control and that she has already lost so much, she is determined to not only survive, but live life as much as possible by her own terms. In a world which women are encouraged to get married and have kids, Katniss is certain that she motherhood and marriage are not in her plans.  It is tough enough to have her sister in the lottery, let alone the prospect of any kids she may have.

One thing we also see in this book is a recognition of the effects of trauma. Too often terrible things happen to characters in fiction and they’re expected to brush it off (or have lots of dramatic angst until magical healing sex curses them). Here with have Haymitch’s alcoholism after his horrendous experiences in the games and then having to tutor so many children who then died. Katniss’ mother also suffers from depression after Katniss’ father died and Katniss herself suffers. We see a very real representation of pain and the effects of it which is reassuring to see.

This book is gripping, exciting and tense from start to finish - it’s definitely a page turner, stay up all night to finish it, book. It has some very compelling very real characters that you can’t help but sympathize with and want to fight for. And it deals with some very deep issues in a comprehensive and well-executed manner that we’ve rarely seen. All in all, a gem of a book and definitely worth reading.