Friday, 13 May 2016

Review: The Hunger Games

As always when reviewing YA, I feel I should state that not being the intended audience puts something of a dampener on my relationship with it. Worse, I can no longer claim to be au fait and can therefore no longer assess it in context of its peers.

My gods, is it possible to sound more pompous?

Well, anyway, I really quite enjoyed The Hunger Games. Roaringly compulsive, I read the entire trilogy over three days. Collins' world is sharp, frank and horrifying - although yes, it pales in comparison to other speculative and real-world settings - as a preteen it would have led to the kind of horrified captivation that would have kept me from sleeping. Collins presents - through Katniss and Peeta - a frank idealism that is both powerless and inflammatory against the corruption of the world they inhabit.

However, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay are not equal. Neither sequal has the claustrophobic intensity of the orignal novel - by comparison, Catching Fire is directionless and perfunctory, whereas Mockingjay rushes along a adventurous thriller of a plot that overshadows what should have been the emotional heart of the novel. Yet I get the impression that the books were intended to be distinct in mood, genre and pacing. They almost need to be vert different books, to attempt very different things. Whether they succeed or not is moot - as a cynical reader, I was unconvinced. As a teenager, more open-hearted and engaged, I may have felt differently.
The greatest strength of the novels, though, was neither their plot nor their emotional intensity. What holds them together is the character of Katniss, whose stark, occasionally abrasive character convinces entirely. Collins unashamedly presents Katniss as a child warped by the dreadful circumstances of her youth.

At once sharply worldly and desperately naive, she is a survivor whose faults are redeemed by her commitment to a better world. Even more refreshingly, Katniss' emotions amd relationships are transient and adolescent - their intensity informed by the horrific circumstances in which they develop, rather than some high ideal of being 'more real' than those of her peers. More still, Katniss mimics and manipulates her own feelings in order to survive, an experience I remember keenly (although under less deadly conditions) from my own adolescence. Katniss' kisses move neither heaven nor earth. Instead, she acknowledges that they feel nice, and she would maybe like to have another. You know, when her life isn't in direct danger.

From what I know of relationships formed against a backdrop of war and uncertainty (not so very far in this country's past, if we're honest), it is this very lack of sparkle and that let's us know what is happening is 100% real. Without spoilers, the ending satisfied, too, refusing to tidy away the bodies or the trauma of the narrative. What we are left with is not some ride into the sunset but survivors clinging to one another, hoping, one day, to heal.

So, on balance, not flawless, but The Hunger Games series provides a clever and engaging exploration of how circumstance shapes us, of how we are always responsible for our actions, but perhaps not the way those are used. An enjoyable read, and some pretty awesome YA.

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