It’s lucky that I’m usually a pretty dilatory blogger. If I blogged about everything straight after I read it, I wouldn’t have anything to write about during the run-up to the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I’m currently preparing to launch 16 books at the 15 Minutes of Fame book launches, so I’ve been reading, yo, but this ain’t no spoiler zone. Instead, you may have noticed that I’m trawling through the books I read over the summer (a noticeably long time ago now – brrrrrr).
When I’m in need of a gear switch, I often read YA, so Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was the first book I cracked open at the airport. Needless to say, its action-themed front cover brought me plenty of ribbing from my (serious, boring, closed-minded, God I need new) friends. And truly, in their defence, actually, I hate this cover and much prefer the stark US cover, whose golden bird struck in the tail feathers with an arrow is a far more powerful image.
The Hunger Games is set in a dystopic future North America, now called Panem, which is divided into twelve Districts and the ruling Capitol. In punishment for having risen against the oppressive government, the twelve Districts are each forced to select two of its children every year to participate as ‘tributes’ in The Hunger Games, a televised survival contest from which only one child will emerge alive.
Katniss Everdeen is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the worst part of District 12 – nicknamed the Seam. Her mother is severely depressed and barely functional, so it’s up to Katniss to support them and her 12-year-old sister Primrose by selling the fruits of her illegal hunting and gathering. Hardened and rational about her chances of being chosen as one of District 12’s tributes, Katniss is aghast when Primrose’s name is drawn, and in a radical and long-unseen gesture, volunteers herself instead.
Published in 2008 (the final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, is due out in a matter of months), The Hunger Games is definitely a book of its time. While its reality television setting has the potential to seem cringeworthy and too ‘now’, Collins investigates its moral conflicts thoughtfully. In particular, she portrays with vividness the complicity of regular people in grotesque societal practices. Heartbreaking, too, is the class divide that Collins has posed in Panem – children can barter another entry in the name draw for a portion of food, which inevitably means that the children of the wealthy are much safer than those who are struggling.
Of course, none of this would work if the characterisation was weak, and Collins has a winning protagonist in Katniss. This teenager is an Andromeda figure without the promise of a Perseus, but fortunately, she’s also a heroine in no need of a saviour. Katniss defies the role of sacrificial lamb to her people’s powerlessness, and plays the game by her own terms. She’s canny but compassionate, and her humanity is something she refuses to trade for her mere life.
There are a couple of places where the dialogue is too glossy, and the darkness underpinning the book’s concept occasionally – and a bit oddly – disappears, but The Hunger Games is still engrossing and rich. It’s impossible not to feel that The Games are but a small part of a much larger and more oppressive system, and Katniss’s major rebellion at the book’s end promises that the scope of the sequel, Catching Fire, will explore this greater territory. Can’t wait.