Readers know how this book will end before even starting the first chapter. After all, the Donner Party is one of the most famous factual examples of cannibalism in the Western world. If you’re reading a book about the Donner Party, you know without a doubt that things aren’t going to end well. No matter how these characters strive toward their goal, you know most of them will not only not make it to the end, they will end up being eaten by the members of the party who remain. Because of this, every page of Alma Katsu’s The Hunger ratchets up the tension and unease as you close in on the inevitable outcome.
“Evil was invisible, and it was everywhere.”
There’s a weird sensuality to everything in this book, including the eponymous hunger. But even before the hunger arrives, almost every interaction is strangely, sexually charged. Uncomfortably so. Even a beating could be disturbingly sexualized in the minds of both abuser and abused. We think of the past as being simpler and easier and more innocent because it was different. However, history is as dramatic as any soap opera. And sexual appetites were just as repressed and perverse and all-consuming as their can be in our modern world. I did find quite a bit of the interpersonal interactions eye-rollingly melodramatic, but I’ve never been one to handle unnecessary drama very well. It’s why I don’t read more Young Adult novels.
“The world was fragile. One day, growth; the next day, kindling.”
The characters here were interesting, but I never fell in love with any of them. I think the reason for that is two-fold. First of all, I knew better than to get attached because I knew most of them we’re going to die. Secondly, even though Katsu did her best to show each member’s strengths and failings, she mostly conveyed their desires and struggles instead of any true personality traits. We’re more than the sum of our parts, but that wasn’t demonstrated in The Hunger. But as the book is literally all about hungers and desires, this choice could have been purposeful. Speaking of those hungers, Katsu did a good job of presenting the dichotomy between superstition and science, the supernatural and the medical, in her presentation of cannibalism. It was incredibly disturbing.
“I don’t believe in monsters… Only men who behave like them.”
If you enjoy historical fiction with an edge, The Hunger is the book for you. It’ll make you incredibly paranoid about ensuring that your pantry is always full. So maybe wait until the world calms back down a bit before picking this one up. Should you decide to read this book, just be sure that your stomach is strong enough to handle it.