25 February 2011

Elise Blackwell, Hunger, 2003

The Soviet Union’s premier botanical institute is the setting for this rather peculiar novel about Leningrad under blockade from German forces in 1941, though the focus is more on the experience and memories of an unnamed protagonist as he, his wife and his colleagues struggle to deal with the ideological extremes of Stalin’s totalitarianism and Trofim Lysenko’s disastrous collectivisation of Soviet agriculture as their nation starves. In spite of the hardships in the worst times of the ‘hunger winter’, the scientists have made a pact: no matter how bad conditions become they will protect their precious cache of seeds that will be their gift to the country’s future. The unnamed narrator is a scientist who has already made various travels to remote places around the world, and the book’s triangular balance is between these memories, his experience of the Seige of Leningrad and assorted sexual reminiscences. He comes across as a particularly unlikeable person with both a bottomless pit of personal vanity and a considerable amount of emotional detachment from the suffering, prefering to recall his appetite for sexual infidelity or at least try to make sense of it in the context of the hunger he witnesses around him.

Despite this being her first novel Elise Blackwell has something of a literary pedigree, but quite why she chose this setting to make some existential points about hunger, appetite and remorse in this particular way was, while reading, largely beyond me, though when seen instead as a long parable about temptation and forbidden fruit it tends to make much more sense. Hunger may have been selected by the L.A. Times as a Notable Book of 2003, but this wasn’t quite the notable book I was expecting: disturbing and curious, I would have preferred a novel lighter on the existentialism and heavier on the real-world subject matter itself.  PY


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