I can often measure how much I enjoy a book by how quickly I read it. Sometimes I start to read a book and I’ll pick it up every now and again when I have some free time. I enjoy the story, I’ll probably even share a few of the book’s highlights with my husband, but it’s probably not going to be a repeat read. Other times I pick up a book and I reach the end only after months of grudgingly returning to it just so I can console myself by saying I finished it. Definitely not a repeat read. And then there are the other books, the ones I don’t read but devour.
I started reading The Hunger Games, the first in a trilogy, last Sunday evening. In the early hours of this morning I finished the third. I dare say had it not been for that eternal inconvenience of having to go to work I would have read all three without pause.
The eponymous Games provide a premise that is reasonably familiar, particularly to science fiction fans. The citizens of the twelve districts of Panem, a country formed in the ruined remains of North America after its ambiguous demise, must pay an annual price to the ruling Capitol for their ancestors’ failed uprising – a sacrifice of two children from each district to compete in the televised Hunger Games. The children, labelled as “tributes”, are sent to the Capitol and turned into hauntingly familiar spectacles, dressed up in grand costumes and paraded in front of cheering crowds, before being sent into the deadly arena where they will slaughter each other until only one remains.
The story unfolds in present tense, told in first person perspective by teenager Katniss Everdeen, who has already endured such hardships that the Games at first seem hardly much worse. It lends a sense of urgency to the story right from the start, as well as leaving the reader with a worrying sense that even our heroine may not survive. Immediately we are drawn into to Katniss’ world and are invested in her battle to survive the brutality and cruelty of the Capitol’s never ending Games.
The story balances precariously between the grim realism of Katniss’ District Twelve, a starving coal-mining community, and the fantastical world of the glitzy Capitol with its cosmetically enhanced citizens and frivolous affairs. Both have recognisable elements of our own world, and in the first book in particular the reader is left with an uneasy question of how much of a leap they are actually taking. In a world where both science and entertainment are continuously breaking new boundaries and hitting new highs- and lows – you could be forgiven for wondering how easily we could slip into the same kind of madness.
I have heard The Hunger Games – and its follow ups Catching Fire and Mockingjay – compared to a certain other series of books aimed at young adults. As much as I find the melodramatic romance of the Twilight series mildly diverting, to compare the broken, frightening world of The Hunger Games to the wish fulfilment and wistful looks of Twilight does a disservice to Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, as well as to her resourceful heroine. Yes, Katniss has two young men vying for her affection, but this is secondary to her battle for survival, not only for her but for the people she cares about. She is brave and selfless and ultimately flawed by a lack of judgement and awareness that reminds the reader that in spite of everything she has done, she is still a child.
It seems odd to me that The Hunger Games trilogy can be found in the children’s fiction section. Books in which children endure starvation, disease and torture at the hands of so-called Peacekeepers before being sacrificed in bloody, brutal battles while Capitol citizens bet on their survival are overlooked and dismissed by some as “children’s fiction.” As is often the case with books aimed at Young Adults, the label does it something of a disservice, because The Hunger Games is just as compelling, haunting, rewarding and moving as any book I have read in recent memory.