Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler

Hunger (Riders of the Apocalypse)

We’re all familiar with teen books that deal with issues.  I almost think it should be “Issues”, with a capital “I”.  It’s the literary equivalent of the “very special episodes” of Eighties sitcom fame.  Given the sheer glut of books that purport to tackle heavy subjects, it’s hard to find something really original, something that really reaches out and grabs your attention.  Boy, have I found one.  The Riders of the Apocalypse series casts teens as the Four Horsemen, and the first book, Hunger, showcases a very unusual Famine.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

“Lisabeth Lewis has a black steed, a set of scales, and a new job: she’s been appointed Famine. How will an anorexic seventeen-year-old girl from the suburbs fare as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

Traveling the world on her steed gives Lisa freedom from her troubles at home—her constant battle with hunger, and her struggle to hide it from the people who care about her. But being Famine forces her to go places where hunger is a painful part of everyday life, and to face the horrifying effects of her phenomenal power. Can Lisa find a way to harness that power—and the courage to fight her own inner demons?”

The dedication of this book is as follows:  “If you have ever looked in the mirror and hated what you saw, this book is for you.”  And the author isn’t kidding, either.  While she never suffered from anorexia, she did go through a major struggle with the related disorder, bulimia.  Kessler talks frankly about this part of her life in her afterward, so you know that she’s speaking from experience.  All I can say is… wow, this book should come with a warning label.

I don’t mean that in a bad way.  This novel does an exceptional job at capturing the agonies of eating disorders, the destructive thought patterns and the anguish caused to friends and family.  Hence the warning label comment: the narrative is so raw and so immediate that anybody who has gone through something even slightly comparable could well find themselves having flashbacks.  It also captures the gruesome details of eating disorders.  In one memorable sequence, Lisa (in her Famine persona) watches her bulimic friend as she goes through a lengthy purge.

As for the story, there is a surprising amount of hope in it.  While Lisa has a horrible problem and spends much of the book refusing to acknowledge it, readers will watch as she comes to grips with an issue that is not only dangerous but socially stigmatizing.  It brings into sharp relief the hurdles that a sufferer faces, not only from their own fight with the disorder, but also from the perceptions of others.   And, sometimes, the perception of other’s perceptions does some damage too.

Beyond Lisa and her experiences, the author highlights the broader issue of hunger and excess around the world.  There aren’t many of these sequences, as the majority of the novel focuses on Lisa, but her travels to other areas of the globe put her anorexia in perspective against some of the grinding poverty of other countries.

As tough as this book is to read, I would recommend it highly.  It’s a unique portrayal of the ravages of eating disorders, both physically and emotionally, and it tells its story with an unflinching honesty coupled with compassion.  Hunger should be required reading for every teenager in these stressful times.

This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on April 30, 2012.

Series: Riders of the Apocalypse
ISBN: 9780547341248
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Page Count: 180
Publication Date: October 18, 2010
Acquired: Borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch
Author Website
Read an excerpt

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