Re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness

Re-reading great books is one of my favourite escapes. There are many that I’ve kept in my small library that I revisit. My re-reading record is for The Lord of the Rings; 13th re-read coming up.

The one I’ve just re-read is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin. This remarkable book was published in 1969, has won major awards for science fiction, and is regarded as a masterpiece. Oddly, it’s the only one of le Guin’s I’ve read, and I’m not strongly motivated to read others of hers, as I fear I would be disappointed.

I first read it when I was in labour with my son, in 1980. It was a protracted, painful labour, and the story allowed me to stay sane and to escape to another world, although it was a dark winter world, which reflected my difficult labour. So it has always kept a special magic around it for me. Another magic thing about it is its title. It comes from the symbol for yin and yang. The words come from a Lay that is part of the mystical  culture of the planet called Gethen (aka Winter), where all living things are part of a whole:

Light is the left hand of darkness

And darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

Together like lovers in kemmer, 

Like hands joined together,

like the end and the way.

This Lay is spoken by Estraven, the noble politician of Gethen who believes in the mission of the alien, Genly Ai, who comes from a distant planet that is part of a confederation of 83 planets, and hopes to persuade the governments of this winter world to join the union.  When Estraven and Genly discuss wholeness and dualism, and the difficult subject of sex, they are sharing a tiny tent in the middle of the ice, in their flight from imprisonment and to fulfil the purpose of Genly’s mission. Estraven is the only Gethenian who believes in and is loyal to Genly, and it is not till  Estraven rescues him from a winter gulag and they flee together for nearly three months in almost impossible conditions, that Genly comes to trust Estraven.

I mentioned the difficult subject of sex. Apart from it always being difficult (but that’s another story) it is extremely so in this world, for both Estraven and Genly. The Gethenians are androgynous, and for a few days every few weeks they go into kemmer, or active sexuality, and take either male or female form. Whereas, as they perceive it, Genly (and by implication all the people of the worlds he comes from) are in permanent rut. So when Estraven goes into kemmer while they share their impossible journey, they confront their differences and their desires, and choose not to enact them. This is how Genly sees it:

I expect it will turn out that sexual intercourse is possible between Gethenian double-sexed and Hainishnorm one-sexed human beings, though such intercourse will inevitably be sterile. Estraven and I proved nothing except perhaps a rather subtler point.

[He feels Estraven’s moodiness, and asks him what he has done wrong. Estraven explains that he is in kemmer and is trying to avoid him. Genly agrees.]

For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of our friendship rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. … it was from the difference that that love came; and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch.

This reminds me of the shocking moment in the iconic 70s movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, when the alien, stunningly played by David Bowie, makes love with his Earth woman, and in the heat of passion, inadvertently reverts to his alien form. Difference is attractive, but when differences are extreme, intimacy may vanish and be overwhelmed by fear.

The bond that slowly forms between Estraven and Genly is one of the most memorable things in this novel. And it ends tragically, although Genly’s mission is fulfilled, thanks to Estraven’s devotion. Another memorable thing is the winter landscape, which is described in all its permutations, a pervasive, relentless, almost unbearably bleak and icy world, with a fierce, alien beauty. Another thing that fascinates me is the philosophy. I’ve already mentioned the whole that is composed of light and darkness. A fascinating episode, before Genly’s enforced exile, is his visit to the Foretellers. They have a religion called Handdara, “without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without creed…”. What they do have is a practice of Foretelling, where they go into a trance, which they call untrance, involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Genly asks a question: “Will this world Gethen be a member of the Ekumen of Known Worlds, five years from now?” After a long, terrifying time/space, the answer comes: “Yes, yes, yes!”. Later, when Genly has recovered, he questions the chief seer about the practice. Faxe explains that the Handdara don’t want answers, and that  the reason they have practiced and perfected Foretelling is “To exhibit the perfect uselessness  of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”  He goes on to explain that ignorance is the ground of thought, unproof the ground of action, and that there is really one question that can be answered — that we shall die.

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.

I find this profound, unanswerable. It is not knowing that keeps us alive, that makes living worthwhile.

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Living Creatively: I

Recently I’ve been thinking about my life, all the twists and turns it has taken. It has opened out now into a very gentle and lovely place, in a beautiful valley near the Border Ranges, which divide New South Wales from Queensland. Dominating the valley are the remains of a 20 million year old volcano, now called Wollumbin Mount Warning. This mountain is most unusual in its shape, and in the magnetic effect it has on the district. It was called Mount Warning by Captain Cook, because it was his first sight of land as he sailed up the coast, and is said to be the first peak to catch the morning sun. Wollumbin was added to acknowledge the indigenous groups of the area, although there is controversy among them over the authenticity of this name. One story says it means Cloud Catcher, which is most apt, as it often trails clouds around it, like  a woman’s fascinator. This intriguing word originally meant “a light scarf of fine knitting over the head and round the neck, [worn] instead of an opera hood when going out at night.” Another meaning for Wollumbin is “fighting chief of the mountains”. I think it has both moods, and many more.

The image above is my pastel painting of it, done early this year.

Living a creative life is difficult, as we all know, when we have to support ourselves and our families and earn a living. Few people in the creative arts are able to earn a living from their art. Most of us do all sorts of odd jobs or more permanent ones to make end meet. The downside of that is that it can take up a lot of one’s time, and may drain or suppress one’s creative energy.

Life can lead us on all sorts of byways. But more than that, the central purpose of life, for those of us who have children, is raising our children and helping them to find their feet. For women, traditionally, this has been their main occupation. As we have shifted, in developed countries, from the traditional monogamous family where the husband is the bread earner and the wife stays at home, women have had to balance child bearing and raising with working as joint income earner, or in many cases, as single parent and sole earner.

For me, this pattern has meant that I didn’t start to unfold my creative self outside of growing and loving my children and making ends meet until I was in my late 50s. When my son left school and began work, I went back to university. I decided I didn’t want a career, and it was too late anyway, I wanted to tell my story. So I wrote an autobiographical novel and theorised my life in the framework of the bourgeois family (more on that another time). Then I had a couple of years off, working in frail aged care, then went back to do a PhD. This time I combined my own life writing, interpretations of a medieval Japanese novel written by a woman and set in a polygamous aristocratic court society, and the theories of two radical French philosophers. My thesis was titled The Origami of Desire: Unfolding and Refolding the Desiring Self (f).

I have published several articles and essays from this. My next project is — finally — to publish my childhood memoir, This Place You Know, which weaves my mother’s story and mine to tell the story of how our family broke apart and we lost ‘this place’ we loved. I have been writing and revising it for 20 years! I also have written a memoir of my young adulthood, called Loss: a Memoir, which I hope to publish. The first memoir is currently being edited by a literary editor, who has given me great help in bringing it to be the best it can be.

So creativity can be a broken path. But it is very important to keep returning to it, not to lose sight of it or give up on it. Little things help, like writing this blog. I also do pastel painting, like the one of the valley above. I am in a pop-up art trail next week, and hope to sell some of my paintings so I can go on and paint some more.

What do you do to keep your creativity alive? I’d love to hear your stories.

 

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Bringing History to Life Again

Three years ago I wrote a post called Bringing History to Life, about Hilary Mantel’s two masterpieces, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both Man Booker prizes. I fell in love with them three years ago, on a Christmas visit to family in the west, and I’ve recently re-read them. I love re-reading books that are so fine in texture, rich in description and characterisation, that create an imagined (in this case historical) world you can enter and inhabit for a time. This is the next best thing to the Tardis; perhaps better, because you are not embodied or materialised there, so you are safe, in this case from decapitation or the torture wrack, or Henry VIII’s wrath, or Anne Boleyn’s tantrums and scheming. Or, in my case, from the seductive power of Thomas Cromwell’s formidable intellect and his subtly charismatic ability to manage people and to direct the course of affairs at a high level, while seeming to serve those who have greater rank and power than him. Of course, we know, he came to a bloody end, like those Anne Boleyn and several of her admirers who are framed as her lovers had at his hands, when he was at the height of his influence in the court. Despite his machinations, we are able to forgive him because he is doing what Henry, his master, wants; his own integrity is somehow not corrupted by the fact that he is raising people to power then bringing them down when their star is eclipsed by Henry’s shifting desires and whims. So there is a knife edge morality in this book, which doesn’t judge, but allows  you to take sides as the wind shifts, and to understand why Cromwell acted as he did, even though you can’t necessarily understand or accept Henry’s motivation, or the way people are taken up, used, then discarded.

We have long awaited the promised third book in this historical saga. It seems that it is still coming: http://blogs.abc.net.au/wa/2015/02/hilary-mantel-reveals-timing-of-her-next-book-and-whats-next-after-thomas-cromwell.html. There will be great excitement when it is released.

For now, I can’t add much more to my previous post on the two books, except to say that they seem to grow in richness and texture with each re-read. I also love the BBC dramatisation, Wolf Hall. Inevitably, with two big books crammed into 8 episodes, it is much abbreviated; but the superb settings, filming, and scripting, and above all the star performance by Mark Rylance (I fell for him even more than his print version in the books), well supported by a wonderful cast, including Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Bolyn, make it a model of historical TV drama .

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Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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This book has received accolades, and been awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Prime Minister’s literary award for fiction. Mostly, it has had rave reviews.

I am a dissenter. I had very mixed feelings as I read it. I won’t attempt to summarise the plot; many others have done that.

I think the middle part of the book is the great story. Flanagan tells the gruelling story of the Australian men who slaved to build the Thai-Burma railway during the Second World War — how they were driven to death, forced to work in impossible conditions, with only the most rudimentary tools, almost no food or clothing, beaten, treated as less than human. The focus is on individual men, and their commander, Dorrigo Evans, who is a surgeon and struggles to keep them alive, to care for them when they are ill and dying. He loves them, he sacrifices himself for them, he pleads with the Japanese commander and officers to spare them from brutal floggings and forced marches and work on ‘the Line’  when they are close to death; and yet he fails in his love, because every day more and more of them die.

He is a paradoxical man, for though he is a hero, selfless in his dedication, he does not believe in his own goodness. He becomes an actor in his own life, compelled to go on trying to save his men.

Everything about their procession felt to the doctor an immense charade, with his the cruellest character: the man who proffered hope when there was none, in this hospital that was no hospital but a leaking shelter made up of rags hung over bamboo, the beds that were no beds but vermin-infested bamboo slats, the floor that was filth, and him the doctor with almost none of the necessities a doctor needed to cure his patients. He had a greasy red bandana, a cap on an angle and a dubious authority with which to heal.

The characterisation of Dorrigo and his men is unflinching, showing them in all their motley humanity, unlikely heroes. The interpretation of their heroism is interesting and challenging. For they act, it is insisted, not out of essential goodness or even compassion, but out of a collective instinct to survive. This is more so, I think, for the men than for Dorrigo, because we are allowed a space where we can believe in Dorrigo’s love and self-sacrifice, even though he does not believe in it himself.

It had been a day to die, not because it was a special day but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die now, and the only question that pressed on them, as to who might be next, had been answered. And the feeling of gratitude that it had been someone else gnawed on their guts, along with the hunger and the fear and the loneliness, until the question returned, refreshed, renewed, undeniable. And they only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other. For them, forever after, there could be no I or me, only we and us.

Yet, I want to insist that there is love, compassion, in their small acts of kindness and tenderness. Sometimes, in this story, I feel there is too much analysis, too much insistence on the authorial point of view, which comes through in the interpretation of the men’s actions.

A bigger question for me hangs over the stories around the central war story. Dorrigo is again the main character, deeply flawed by his own lack of self belief. This is externalised in his marriage, which is hollow, because he has fallen in love with Amy, who is married to his uncle. He loses her but never gets over her, nor she him. Where I lose belief in the narrative is  the insistent characterisation of Dorrigo as a man who acts his own life. We are told he has become a national hero, famed for his war service and for his subsequent career as a surgeon. He is a philanderer, loved not only by his wife but by the women he seduces, yet none of it has meaning for him, not even his children. I find myself wondering, if indeed he is so lacking in self-belief, how he manages to sustain the life that he does.

Another aspect of the story that disturbs me is the portrayal of the Japanese officers. We are given their points of view, both during the building of the Line, and in the lives of some of them after the war. They tell us that they act as they do because of the equation that the Emperor is a god who must be obeyed at all costs, and that the Allied prisoners are less than human and deserve to suffer and die because they acted ignobly by surrendering rather than taking their own lives. There are gestures towards redemption in the post-war lives of a couple of them, but this is left unresolved. I question Flanagan’s licence to enter the consciousness of these Others and portray their motivation. How can he, or any of us, know how it was to be them, within that culture, at that time? How can we speak for them? I wonder what a Japanese reviewer would say of this book.

There are other things about the book I am disturbed or irritated by, but that’s enough for now! Many readers may disagree with me.

 

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The Good People by Hannah Kent

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A friend lent me Hannah Kent’s second novel a month or so ago, and I finished it quickly. I wanted to, because it was a kind of torture to read it. Kent creates another dark, cold world, where people are cruel and ignorant and without hope, but the bleakness is relieved by little acts of kindness, and by the lyrical beauty of the prose that describes the natural world. Unlike Burial Rites, her acclaimed debut novel, there is no redemption, only loss, and a final dawn escape for one of the characters, which can only be a lonely road towards her end… though one gets the feeling that this is welcomed, for she is accompanied by ‘the birds above her and, in the slow unpeeling of darkness, a divinity of sky.’

Somehow, this book does not resonate in my mind as much as Burial Rites did. I am not sure why. Perhaps because of the predictability of the climax. The clash between the superstition of the villagers and their belief in ancient magic, and the fear and jealousy and brutality of some, exacerbated by the self-righteous stance of the village priest, can only have one sort of outcome, and that is the persecution of the old woman, Nance Roche, who is a natural healer and believes in the magic of The Good People. The object of healing is the four-year-old child Micheal, who was born healthy but has become afflicted physically and mentally. His grandmother Nora struggles to care for him, and hides him from the other villagers; when her husband dies suddenly, she is devastated, and comes to believe that the child is a changeling left by the fairies, who have stolen her grandson.

Nora hires a poor fourteen-year-old girl, Mary, from a distant village, to be her servant and to care for the child. Mary becomes the moral touchstone for the story. She feels tenderness and pity for the little being, and becomes an unwilling accomplice in the healing rituals that Nance performs, with Nora’s consent. When these rituals fail, healing is no longer the object; the object is to force the changeling to return to the fairy world so that the real human child can be restored to his grandmother. To the bitter end, Nora believes that the child is not Micheal. Mary protests and tries to save the child from his death. She becomes a witness in the subsequent trial of the two women, Nance and Nora, and here, too, she is a touchstone of truth, for though she believed at the time that they had murdered the child, she attests that Nance has ‘the knowledge’ of The Good People and their herbs, and her final statement in court is that the ritual that killed Micheal was ‘done with the intent to cure it, sir. To put the fairy out of it,’ and not with the intent of killing him. Hence the two women are acquitted.

Loss is the dominant theme of the story, with darker notes of cruelty and fear, in a world where religion and paganism lock the people in an uneasy tension between a capricious, often cruel world of magic and a self-righteous, patriarchal and at times venal moral code. The real world the people inhabit is evoked with an assured voice, modulating from realistic detail — ‘The smooth whiteness of the fields melted to mud and dying grass, and the valley felt darker for it’ — to poetry of lyrical intensity —  ‘Lough Leane golden, and the surrounding mountains bearing down in holy indigo. The shifting, unfurling clouds passing the sun like pilgrims past a saint.’ Nature itself is divine, as the closing phrase of the symphony reminds us — ‘a divinity of sky.’

This, for me, is the strongest appeal of the book — the natural world, where things just are in their bleakness and beauty. If there is any redemption in the bleak  and tragic human story, it is in the simple truth and compassion of the poor servant girl, the small acts of tenderness and kindness of some of the characters, and the empathy with which Kent performs her characters; they are dark and light, they suffer, and there is no black and white. For much of the story I found myself part believer in the magic and the knowledge that  Nance is a practitioner of, and almost hoping that indeed the little boy would be restored to his undamaged self. Of course, we know the outcome before we begin to read the story, but such is the power of a great writer, to make us suspend disbelief.

Although I found Burial Rites more fascinating because of its setting, I think The Good People is a more confident, mature novel.

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Stories of imprisonment

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Emma Donoghue’s much awarded 2010 novel Room (Picador 2010) is a recent read for me. I saw the wonderful movie of it last year. Having read the book, I think it catches the claustrophobic yet vividly alive world of the five year old child better, because the whole narration is in the child’s voice, and we imagine and live it only through him.

That said, of course this narrative method has a strong limitation. But first, an outline of the story. Since the book is six years old, and the movie a year old, I will assume that readers are familiar with the story of a woman and her five year old son Jack, locked in a small room, 12 feet square, with the only window to the outside world a skylight, and a locked door to which only their jailer, whom they call Old Nick, has the code. This story is based on several real life cases of women who were abducted and incarcerated and bore children to their abuser.

Donoghue has chosen to free her characters from the prison after Jack’s 5th birthday. “Ma” decides he is old enough now to understand that the world he knows only as Outside, that he knows of only through television and the light through the skylight, is real, a much bigger reality than the only one he has known since birth. The room is an extension of Ma’s womb, and Jack is utterly secure in it. It is populated with objects given personalities (Rug, Bed, Wardrobe, Plant, and so on) and with the stories, songs and games they play to pass the time. There are a few books which he knows by heart, and thanks to Ma he is highly literate and numerate. She has worked very hard, we come to see, to educate and nourish him and to keep him happy and safe. Indeed, she is a hero.

The plot twists half way through the book, after Ma begins to inform Jack of the reality of Outside and the fact that Room is a prison. Jack is reluctant to accept this at first, but gradually is forced to admit that Ma is very unhappy and wants to escape. The escape plot that Ma hatches is dangerous and could have gone very badly wrong. But for my part, I accepted the imaginative logic of the story; that short of divine intervention, and given the extreme secrecy of their captor and the measures he had taken to keep their existence hidden, there is no other way. So I suspended my disbelief when the escape succeeded. The telling of it is gripping.

The limitation I mentioned above of the narrative method is much more evident in the second half of the story. In the first half their world is enclosed, with only glimpses of Old Nick told by Jack as he listens and sometimes watches from his safe place in the wardrobe. The claustrophobia is perfectly conveyed by Jack’s voice, who does not see it for what it is, so we have that dual perception, that irony, that is used in masterly ways in other fictions of childhood like The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Prince, and others. What we are not told, what Jack does not see or understand, what lies between the lines, we imagine.

The dual perception is much harder to sustain once they are in the outside world. The world they inhabited is gone, and Jack must learn and get used to the myriad diverse and complex places, rituals, people, objects and events that  they are confronted with. He must also accept there is not just me-and-Ma now, that his Ma’s reality is much bigger than him. There is another story here, of course, that of Ma’s painful re-entrance, adjustment to freedom, to her parents, to dealing with past trauma and health challenges, to facing the future as a ‘free’ agent. This is where I am most aware of the limitation, because we can only glimpse her unfolding and adaptation through Jack’s eyes and snatches of overheard conversation. So we must accept this is and remains Jack’s story. But for me, her story shadows it and begs to be told.

That said, his voice is superbly created and sustained, much of it in dialogue with Ma, interspersed with Jack’s descriptions of his thoughts and actions, of Ma, and later, of Outside and other people. And sometimes of his rationalisation of the strange ways of the world, so that, with Swiftian irony, his child’s eye view critiques the way we live:

In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, and she and Steppa [her second husband] don’t have jobs, so I don’t know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, so there’s only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.

Also everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the same thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s even a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear.

And a personal note by the author on her webpage:

Room was inspired by… having kids; the locked room is a metaphor for the claustrophobic, tender bond of parenthood. I borrowed observations, jokes, kid grammar and whole dialogues from our son Finn, who was five while I was writing it. Room was also inspired by… ancient folk motifs of walled-up virgins who give birth (e.g. Rapunzel), often to heroes (e.g. Danaë and Perseus).  Room was also inspired by… the Fritzl family’s escape from their dungeon in Austria – though I doubt I’ll ever use contemporary headlines as a launching point again, since I didn’t like being even occasionally accused of ‘exploitation’ or tagged ‘Fritzl writer’.

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The Hunger Games trilogy

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins, has been an acclaimed best seller and made into a film.screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-8-37-44-pm

This YA story is not for the fainthearted. I started to read it because I wanted to know if it is suitable to read to my 11 year old grandson. A few pages in, I knew it is not. Maybe when he’s 17! That was the age my two older grandsons were when they told me the story of it, and it’s taken me ten years to get round to reading it.

It is a confronting, thrilling, dark fantasy of an apocalyptic time when a tyrannical clique of ruthless oligarchs and technocrats rule over the known world, which is divided into 12 districts. As in the Roman Empire and the gladiator games, and in ancient Greek times in the myth of Theseus and the minotaur, the rulers in the Capitol, for their sadistic amusement, select two young people from each district to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. The heroine Katniss selects herself by taking the place of her young sister Prim, who she knows would not survive. Her opponent from her district is Peeta, who fell in love with her when she was about 10 years old, unknown to her, and remains devoted to her, despite a time later on when he is captured, tortured and brainwashed by the Capitol, and believes her to be a morphling, a synthetic being who assumes the body and appearance of a real person with demonic, destructive intent. But I’m jumping ahead. That’s the stuff of books 2 and 3. Once I’d read book 1, I was hooked, and within the space of about 3 weeks had read all three books.

Katniss is a complex young heroine, skilled as an archer and a hunter, through her long friendship with another boy from her district, Gale, who, we learn as the story unfolds, is also in love with her. She and Gale, in pre-Hunger Game days, had spent many happy hours hunting in the wilds behind their settlement, as their district 12 was more permissively policed than some of the other districts. She is feisty, outspoken, moody and uncompromising; a typical teenager, in fact. She also has a big heart and a fierce loyalty to those she loves, and more courage than even she knows.

The first twist to the plot is that although the two opponents of each district are enemies to each other as well as to the other district fighters, the hidden puppeteers, the Capitol mob, decide to allow Katniss and Peeta, who manage to kill all the other fighters, to be joint victors, and they are promenaded and feted as lovers destined to marry. Katniss is ambivalent about this, unsure how she feels about Peta (or Gale for that matter), but plays along with the game for the sake of the survival of herself and her district. This is a reality game on a mega scale, and is a dark satire on the whole genre of reality TV. What happens when the known world is ruled and manipulated by a sadistic coterie of rulers who force the characters, like puppets in a theatre, to fight, to work, to mate, to hurt, to kill, to starve, to suffer, using the tropes of the warrior and the lover to manipulate the audience and keep them from dwelling on the real slavery of their lives? What happens when the puppets use their intelligence, courage and charisma to subvert power and bring the masses to rebellion with the dream of returning to a more humane, democratic way of life?

Katniss, who becomes known as the Mockingjay, is regarded as a potential saviour of the districts from their slavery and suffering. She struggles with this role, and with her divided love and loyalty for Gale and for Peeta, and she and people she loves pay a terrible price for rebelling.

Unlike The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, which I read a few years ago, and found monotonous in its intensity and narrow cast of characters, The Hunger Games is gripping, shattering, moving, and with it all, the kind of book that you put down at the end with sighs of relief and admiration. Its power is not in the poetics of the hero story, but in the thrilling, ever-changing plot and the large caste of colourful characters, some of whom are realised in depth, and a packed toolbox of special effects which don’t dominate the story but do work seamlessly with the plot to keep you turning the pages. It is also memorable for its theme, which is about humanity refusing degradation and slavery and the cost of doing so.

Here’s an excerpt which reflects the profound humanity and compassion underlying the violence and darkness of this world. In book 3, Mockingjay, Katniss visits the wounded in the epic struggle of the revolution against the Capitol. She moves amongst the wounded rebels, who call out her name.

“I hear my name rippling through the hot air, spreading out into the hospital. ‘Katniss! Katniss Everdeen!’ The sounds of pain and grief begin to recede, to be replaced by words of anticipation. From all sides, voices beckon me. I begin to move, clasping the hands extnded to me, touching the sound parts of those unable to move their limbs, saying hello, how are you, good to meet you. Nothing of importance, no amazing words of inspiration. But it doesn’t matter.… It’s the sight of me, alive, that is the inspiration.”

There is inspiration, there is hope, there is love, there is loyalty, there is courage, lighting up this dark, apocalyptic world. When all seems lost, humanity triumphs. This is a powerful theme, and is worked to the maximum in a brilliant, original and gripping thriller.

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