This evening, knowing it's overdue and I must return it to the library tomorrow, I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I finished it over half an hour ago, and I am still shaken. Not a Bond reference, but if it were, I'd be shaken and stirred. This book is that good. One of those novels where, when you're done reading it, you feel as if there's been a palpable shift, and that the world has, in some real way, been altered.
Now, I already knew that Suzanne Collins could write, since I really enjoyed her Gregor the Overlander series. (Here are my reviews of Gregor the Overlander, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, and Gregor and the Marks of Secret. Uh, yeah, the final book is still in my TBR pile.) And the Gregor books are, in many ways, about war and its effects on societies and, more particularly, on the youth of those societies.
The Hunger Games is decidedly about war and its effects. First, it's set in the dystopian society of Panem, a nation rebuilt from the remains of North America. There's the Capitol (in the Rocky Mountains) and twelve Districts. Once there were thirteen districts, but following a multi-district assault on the Capitol, District Thirteen was wiped out. Our narrator and main character is a sixteen year-old girl named Katniss, who spends her time (when she's not in school) sneaking out of the town to hunt in the nearby woods.
The Hunger Games is kind of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery meets the movie Running Man (or maybe that new Running Man-like movie with demolition derby car-racing prisoners). To keep the districts in check, the Capitol keeps them all completely separated and isolated, and keeps them within walled confines (to keep wild animals out, but just as much to keep the people in). And, oh yeah, to ensure that nobody ever forgets the horror of the rebellion, or the supremacy of the Capitol, the Capitol requires a "tribute" of two children between the ages of 12 and 18 each year: one boy and one girl.
The kids are contestants in the most frightening reality television show ever: 24 shall enter, one shall leave. When Katniss's 12-year old sister's name is pulled from the thousands of entries, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Also from District 12? The nice boy who once gave her bread when she was literally starving. Let the Hunger Games begin.
Let me just say that I sobbed wracking sobs over the death of one contestant. And I felt, quite honestly, shaken when I reached the end of the book. Parts of it were completely horrifying. Now, I realize that this was all a made-up world from the imagination of Suzanne Collins. (Note to self: do not visit Suzanne Collins's imagination - if this is the stuff she felt comfortable writing down, the stuff she chose not to write would probably scare me witless.) And this world was entirely logically consistent at all times, even when it was horrible. And it couldn't happen right now, but given what we hear of their culture, it seems like it might be attainable within our lifetimes, just to add that extra level of horror to the mix. But this is, at its core, a suspense novel. Or so I've figured out by applying something M.T. Anderson said in his marvelous interview over at Through the Tollbooth. Here's a bit of what he said:
The pace for horror and for suspense is different. As I’ve said elsewhere, I do think that there are formal differences between the two modes. One of them is this: In horror, you take a safe place and make it unsafe and unfamiliar (the unheimlich). In a suspense movie, you define safe and unsafe places incredibly starkly – you differentiate them – and then you get a character trapped in the unsafe place and trying to cross over to the safe zone. The audience sweats as they track the character’s impeded progress. So, for example, in one of the most beautiful and elegant of spy thrillers, Richard Burton’s film version of Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Burton becomes mired on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. The energy of the film partially comes from our anxiety about how he’ll get back over the wall … and this consideration ends up involving awful questions about the relationships in the movie, questions of loyalty and deception … So the geographical and the human impinge on each other.
There are to be two further books, I believe. I cannot wait to see how they pan out. But to be honest, I'm glad I can't find out immediately, because it's just too upsetting. And yet I urge every person I know to read this one. Before they smack a Printz sticker on the front of it.