Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: Jackie Morse Kessler's Hunger

I may just have my crotchety old lady pants on, but I wasn’t on board with Hunger. The author seems like a really lovely person, and I get what she’s trying to do here. However, I think this book is a classic case of “awesome premise that falls short of its full potential.”

In her author’s note, Kessler mentions that she suffered from bulimia. “Write what you know” is trite, but she does an excellent job here, credibly portraying both anorexia and bulimia. (The instance where the two disorders intersect is arguably the book’s most powerful scene.) The tyrannical “Thin Voice” our emaciated heroine hears is absolutely terrifying. I’ve heard that voice before, and to see it taken to an extreme is a real-life horror story. For instance, there’s a gripping scene where anorexic Lisabeth watches her healthy boyfriend eat a plate of cheese fries. It made me really crave some French fries, but at the same time, I sort of never want to eat (much less look at) a French fry ever again. Yes! I was so with the protagonist there! What went wrong?

Where Kessler stumbles is the book’s hook: the four Horsemen. (Really, Horsemen and Horsewomen, as Rage is also female.) OK, so they’re the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Cool. I’m more or less familiar with what they’re doing. (The Bible pretty much lays it out.) Thing is, Kessler is explicitly reimagining that mythology, and she needed to do the work! So many cool questions can be answered: What do they DO all the time? Why do they get chosen? How long do their appointments last? Do they die? Do they have goals? How do their powers work? Are they friends? Do they have office get-togethers where they get drunk and hang out?

I wanted more, especially of pocked-marked Pestilence. Kessler lets us nibble on an intriguing backstory and then sends him away forever! Speaking of forever, Death didn’t seem so sexy. He was supposed to be terrifying and sensual, but to me, he was trying a little too hard. Maybe it’s because I’m not partial to rock stars.* I also wanted more from Lisabeth’s boyfriend and Lisabeth’s former best friend. (The reason for their falling-out is that the best friend rightfully calls Lisabeth out on her eating disorder). Lisabeth’s bulimic friend Tammy was so vivid that I wanted the “good guys” to match up, to put up a good fight.

I’m not one to hold grunges against small books [sic: intentional funny], but authors have to be aware that the shorter length raises the stakes. The story has to be great to make up for the “missing” pages. (See When You Reach Me, which was 208 pages, fully-imagined, well-executed, and awesome.) Maybe if this book had a little more time to develop, it really could have been something. As it was, it seemed (excuse the pun) half-baked. The eating disorder storyline was good, though I can’t say it was amazing because I’ve already been spoiled by Wintergirls. The Four Horsemen is an original concept, but the execution fell flat. (The series will continue with at least one more book, which will feature a self-injurer as Wrath. I might have to read more to see if it improves.)

Again, my griping is not anything personal. My negative reviews are not a screed against the author or their family or everything they stand for. More often than not, my negative reviews spring from frustration at engaging with a book that is so close to succeeding! I want books to succeed and be brilliant! That’s why I want to go into publishing! Ah, well. I guess I’ll feed my old grumpyguts some muddy buddies that I made for the Superbowl.** (Whoo, football?)

*Rock stars, you ask? Well, Death appears in the form of Kurt Cobain. (He even sings a little too…IN KURT COBAIN’S VOICE.) Do kids these days even know who Kurt Cobain is? (Gosh, I am a cranky old lady.) I know Kessler can’t help that she hit one of my biggest writing pet peeves, but I hate, HATE when writers use references to “our world” as shorthand. (I’m actually so worked up about this that I want to devote a whole post to it.)

**This is half a joke. In the book, Lisa eats mud to fuel her powers.


  1. I don't know if you've read this: but it has the best(/most hilarious) depiction of the four horsemen of the apocalypse I've ever come across.

  2. That has been on my list for so long! (AMERICAN GODS, too.) I'll push it up the list. :)