Review: Hunger

Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group. October 2010. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: Lisabeth Lewis, seventeen, has taken three of her mother’s Lexapro and intends to take more. A messenger knocks on the door, hands her Scales, informs her she is now Famine (as in one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse) and says “Thou art the Black Rider; go thee unto the world.”

Famine – an odd pick for someone with an eating disorder.

The Good: I confess, I picked this up at ALA thinking “oh, paranormal romance” because I didn’t read beyond the first sentence. Also, at 174 pages, I wanted a short book to balance the sagas.

Lisa has a boyfriend, James, who is concerned about her but cannot articulate it beyond saying he doesn’t like Lisa’s new friend, Tammy. Lisa is in awe of Tammy’s control – Tammy eats exactly what she wants and then can throw it up. Lisa has tried to be as good as Tammy but she cannot force herself to purge. Instead she listens to the Thin voice in her head, telling her she is fat, telling her the calories in a glass of orange juice and just how many hours of exercise it will take to work it off. Lisa refuses to talk to her friend Suzanne because Suzanne dared to call her “anorexic.” Lisa’s father is there, but distant, either working or relaxing with a drink or two or three while her mother travels for various causes.

Into Lisa’s complex relationship with food, with hunger, with others, comes the Four Horsemen: Death (who looks like a certain dead rock star), War (a woman who relishes the mayhem she brings), Pestilence (who looks like he has every disease out there because he does) and Famine. Lisa is now Famine and can cause hunger wherever she goes, making others feel the way she does. The first time she travels on Famine’s horse and causes a riot she is in awe of her power, and the resulting chaos, and scared that War is so delighted. Pestilence offers a hint to Lisa that all is not what it seems and that the power of the Horsemen is not all destruction.

Death, War, Pestilence and Famine are too real to call Hunger magic realism. Yet, because the supernatural is woven into Lisa’s basic needs and fears the story feels, well, real and I have a hard time saying, “this is a fantasy.”

Lisa is hungry yet refuses to eat; what happens when she sees the consequences of those who are hungry and have no food to eat? As Famine, she has power to impact others. Is that a power of a Horseman, or a power Lisa can find within herself? Using the supernatural as a metaphor is front and center in this story.

I want to call this book slim or thin; but that reminds me of the voice, the voice in Lisa’s head that just will not go away, telling her she is fat, pathetic, weak. Yes, there is supernatural in this story, but Kessler does not give Lisa an easy magical answer to her eating disorder, just like in real life such disorders aren’t something that just go away. Instead, Kessler shows us both Lisa as an ill person but also as a person who has inner strength, who has the choice to use her strength to recognize help is needed.

Kessler’s next book is Rage, where a girl who self mutilates becomes another one of the Four Horseman. Given the insightful, inventive, sensitive way that Lisa’s story is told, I’m looking forward to Rage.