Hunger, by Jackie Morse Kessler
Release Date: October 2010
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Received: Net Galley
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Teenager Lisabeth Lewis is anorexic, and she is also Famine, one of the famed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As she fights against coming to terms with her eating disorder, Lisabeth travels around the world as the Black Rider using her scales to grant and withhold food from people. Each of the Four Horsemen make an appearance, while Lisabeth's mother, father, boyfriend, and two best friends round out the story in Lisa's human life.
The idea for this story is phenomenal, but the execution is uneven. The real life part of the story where the reader is taken through Lisabeth's daily routine struggling with the Thin Voice is written exceptionally. The Thin Voice Lisa hears in her head constantly criticizes her and urges her deeper and deeper into anorexia. The inner torment Lisa goes through, combined with the effects her eating disorder is having on her body, is described in a searing and brutally honest manner. Any glamour or control associated with eating disorders is stripped away, leaving behind only the ugly truth. Lisa's friend Tammy's experiences with bulimia are equally vivid and horrifying.
As a novel about eating disorders, Hunger is top notch. I would even go so far as to say this is the most honest and accurate portrayal I've seen of both the physical acts, and, even more importantly, the psychological torment a person with an eating disorder of this magnitude experiences. The author's note at the end of the book explains the author's personal experiences with eating disorders, and this explains the notable honesty and accuracy in the book. This alone is an achievement and makes Hunger a significant book.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book is not up to par. The fantasy elements are poorly developed and, as a result, the plot is convoluted. I'm still not completely sure how the power of the Four Horsemen work, what makes a person suitable for their roles, what their roles are, and how they work in the world. Are they forces of good, evil, both? The personalities of the other Horsemen are equally vague and inconsistent. In many ways, the three other Horsemen are extreme caricatures, which doesn't line up with Lisabeth's personality if she, too, is a qualifying Horseman.
Death, the most fleshed out of the remaining three Horsemen, is a strange mix of modern and old, which could make sense if he didn't feel so gimmicky. His speech was contrived and irritated me. He sounded to me like the creation of a teenager's: over-done and trying much too hard to appear "totally cool." The allusions to a certain angsty deceased grunge rock star made this character especially cheesy and eye-roll inducing for me. He just didn't work for me at all.
The other weak point of the book is the constant messages. The fantasy elements are used to help Lisabeth come to terms with her eating disorder, but because the fantasy elements are so weakly defined, the metaphors fall flat. Despite the tenuous connections, the messages are obvious, *too* obvious, and are really beaten to death. Ultimately, the points are made (and they are good points), but they are not made subtly or effectively.
I wish the author had spent as much time and effort on the fantasy elements of the story as she did on the realistic eating disorder parts. If she had, then this book would have been amazing and a true achievement. Instead we get a superb vignette surrounded by a mediocre and amateurishly written story. I hope the author puts more effort into developing the fantasy aspects in future installments of this series.
This is the first book in a series of, presumably, four books. Even though it's a part of a series, this book can easily be read as a standalone book.
Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key