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BOOK REVIEW: The Hunger Games / Author: Suzanne Collins

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, March 31, 2012 / Under the Title of: And Then There Was One...?

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

To enter Panem, built atop the ashes of a civilization, one must walk past its impoverished 99% living under the spell of a shiny Capitol and remain unfazed at its fondness for teenage death matches. Suzanne Collins envisions a future that thrives on pageantry and the class divide, has ghoulish cravings and a weakness for heartrending reality TV. It summons young contestants or tributes, as they are called, from 12 starving districts to take part in games with ridiculously high stakes. For some, this is considered fun.

Navigating this cold, comfortless terrain shrouded in gloom, one comes across a familiar soundtrack of hunger, violence, media circuses and rebellion from this era running unobtrusively in the background. Katniss Everdeen, a resourceful 16 year old, narrates her life of hardship in the coal mining district simply known as District 12, sharing her brief but memorable encounter with the Capitol’s media machine before being thrust in the arena where she will be left to fend for herself.

An age-old survival of the fittest theme has been tweaked and which, upon impact, invokes a powerful visceral reaction. This brave new world has tamed the districts found on the wrong side of an old rebellion through an audacious proposal; hunger games are simply a strategy of keeping the masses sedated and the 1% entertained.

Survivor-inspired catchphrases (outwit, outlast, outrun) that hover in the air assume tragic significance as characters are plunged into reality TV mode, primped up for a good show and paraded around for entertainment. Just like in the games, both District 12 tributes, Katniss, an expert hunter and Peeta, the baker’s son ensure that the story stays grounded despite the ensuing mayhem. While immediate events within the arena occupy the reader, shadows cast by Capitol can be a tad overwhelming. The unsettling imagery evoked by derelict districts sadly bleached of colour is offset by the garish hues flaunted by the haves.

The sight of this future is as disorienting as the artificial looking populace applauding the games, artfully woven from the strands of our DNA. People in the crosshairs of crushing poverty or living under the shadow of evil easily stand in for their future counterparts — the have-nots. An amusing caricature of some carefree living is offered on the side as a strong female protagonist is casually tossed in the ring. The result is a thought provoking, bone-chilling, gut-wrenching adventure laced with urgency that weaves its cruel mythology into a haunting tale of subversion, self-sacrifice and survival.

Recycling that charged atmosphere, the thrill of the chase, and making Katniss and her fellow tributes complicit in the ratings game is one part of the journey. Wondering how they can resist the inevitable pull of the state-sponsored abyss is the other part. The Hunger Games trilogy adroitly balances its fearsome premise upon an intriguing albeit macabre vision harvested from present-day excesses. Any resemblance to real life is purely intentional in this gripping tale of woe. Yet major readjustments are required to dismiss the impending body count and focus on its spunky heroine, who represents the subjugated half of Panem. The readers are expected to cheer Katniss on, even as they inwardly flinch at the thought of bloodshed.

One of the primary challenges must have been to make the onlookers empathise with characters who might, at some point, be forced to trade their humanity for survival. Even those used to seeing mind-numbing violence might be taken aback by the unapologetic use of modern day contrivances to prop up such a morbid fantasy. Horror dressed in futuristic garb appears distant. The instruments chosen to give it life, however, hit close to home. The further one goes into Collins’ universe, the easier it becomes to discern recurring patterns from history and appreciate the sly little digs aimed at contemporary culture.

What was once America now draws energy from every cautionary tale known to mankind. On one level, this enactment evokes elements of the French Revolution, cakes and all. On another, it proceeds to drive a stake through the celebrity culture and its allied superficiality while staging a silent assault on the global world order driven by paranoia. It is interesting to see how different levels of powerbrokers find themselves reflected in The Hunger Games, from totalitarian regimes and democracies (sham, benign, indifferent) to Machiavellian rulers and war-mongering politicians.

Katniss Everdeen’s life story may not follow a traditional arc but it does yield enough optimism to encourage the hope of salvaging something worthwhile from the ruins of the post-apocalyptic reality. The Hunger Games trilogy is an international bestseller and the recently released movie version is reportedly a box office hit. Its target audience is young adult though the mature theme earns it a place amongst those with more sophisticated tastes.

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