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 Peeta (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 the 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.