Book Review: Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler (Series, #1)
Lisabeth Lewis thought it was just a nightmare. Death coming to her when she tried to commit suicide with her mom’s antidepressants and offering to make her Famine–one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse–instead of letting her die. It’s just all way too ironic, her as Famine. After all, she’s fat. She has to watch what she eats very carefully. The Thin voice tells her all the time exactly how many calories each bit of food is and how much exercise it’ll take to burn it off. Yes. Lisabeth Lewis is fat. So why would Death assign Famine to her anyway?
When I heard the concept of this new YA series–each horseman of the apocalypse representing and dealing with a mental health issue relevant to teens–I was incredibly skeptical. Writing about mental illness in a way that teens can relate to without talking down to them as well as in a responsible manner is difficult enough without having a fantasy element present. Toss in the fantasy and I was worried this would either read like one of those old 1950s cautionary films shown in highschools or would miss dealing with the mental illness entirely. Boy was I wrong. Kessler has found such a unique, creative way to address a mental illness yet cushions it in the fantasy so that it isn’t too in your face. It’s the ideal scenario for teens reading about it, but it’s also enjoyable for adults.
The fantasy element is very tongue-in-cheek. It strongly reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in style. For instance, Death resembles a heroin-chic dead rock star, and he speaks in a mix of classic English and mocking teen speak to Lisa.
“Thou art Famine, yo,” Death said. “Time to make with the starvation.” (Location 661)
It quickly becomes apparent that Death and the Horsemen aren’t entirely what they initially seem to be. Indeed, they seem to function to get Lisa out of her own head and problems and to look at the greater world around her. She literally travels the world on her horse and sees real hunger, and it affects her. It doesn’t make her feel guilty for being anorexic, but it makes her want to be better so she will be strong enough to help others. That’s a key element of any mental illness treatment. Getting the person to see outside of themselves, and Kessler has personified it through the Four Horsemen.
She, Lisabeth Lewis, seventeen and anorexic and suicidal and uncertain of her own path–she’d done something that mattered. She’d ignored her own pain and had helped others. Maybe she wanted to live after all. (Location 2007)
Of course the non-fantastical passages dealing with Lisa’s anorexia and her friend’s bulimia are incredibly realistic. If they weren’t, the book would immediately fail as the whole thing would ring false to the teens reading it. Her anorexia is dealt with as a very real thing even as the Four Horsemen are presented as either truth or hallucinations of her starved mind. This is key. The anorexia cannot be presented as an element of fantasy.
I was concerned the ending would be too clean-cut. I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice it to say, Kessler handles the ending in a realistic, responsible manner. There are no easy solutions, but there are solutions to strive for.
Overall, Hunger takes the incredibly real problem of anorexia and presents it with a touch of fantasy to help bring the reader not only into the mind of the anorexic but also outside of herself to look at the bigger picture. It is an inspiring, fresh take on YA lit dealing with mental illness, and I highly recommend it to fans of YA lit as well as those interested in literature dealing with mental illnesses.
5 out of 5 stars