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Hunger    by Elise Blackwell order for
by Elise Blackwell
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This small book is a lyrical survivor story, an elegant exercise in empathy, based on the devastating 'hunger winter' of the 1941 siege of Leningrad. It is based on a true event, the preservation through this period by scientists at the Research Institute of Plant Industry of hundred of thousands of seed and plant specimens (including foods like Peruvian potatoes) collected by eminent biologist Nikolai Vavilov, their 'great director' - this at a time when starving people were eating rats, and making soups of tree bark and lichens. The narrator is one of the scientists at the institute and the story opens as he and his beloved wife Alena enjoy an anniversary dinner, while Germany's young soldiers approach the city.

Indeed, there are many recollections of meals scattered through the book, memories that must have been on people's minds as food became ever more scarce. When the narrator speaks of the joint decision made at the institute 'not to eat the obvious', he gives himself no credit. He generally portrays himself as weak, a philanderer with a wandering eye, and his wife Alena as the strong one, with a moral certitude that she acts upon - the reader is left wondering how much is truth and how much survivor guilt. The novel takes us back and forth in time, and shows us the great director becoming a victim of a Stalinist purge in the summer of 1941. By December over 50,000 people had starved to death and it was just the beginning - there were eventually over half a million corpses.

Rumors are described as flying around the besieged city like 'flocks of geese' and the narrator tells us of stories of great sacrifice and honor, of murder and cannibalism. Is he cynical or simply realistic when he tells us that 'deprivation debases more often than it ennobles'? Interspersed with the story of this great hunger are musings on the Babylonians and their lush hanging gardens, as well as on past meals enjoyed during trips searching for specimens all over the world. It's an elegant weave of stark siege recollections with bright threads of exotic edibles. The author finally tells us that the disaster destroyed continuity, that there 'would always be before, during, and after'; something most of us can relate to now more than we could before 9/11.

Hunger is an excellent novel, with (pardon the expression) much food for thought. Though (at 144 pages) it's a fast read, it is dense in ideas, which will stay with you and bring you back to read and ponder more.

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