The Hunger

July 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hungerThe Hunger by Alma Katsu

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There’s been a lot of positive buzz about The Hunger, and rightly so. A fictionalized, supernatural account of the Donner party from the 19th century, the book tells a compelling story of survival, using real events from history to drive the story. Katsu is a talented writer, with a keen ear for dialog and an understanding of human nature, and her style is subdued enough not to interfere with the story, while showing us everything we need to know to understand it.

The original Donner party carried 87 people, which would have been an unseemly number of characters for a novel. Katsu chooses to focus on only a handful of them through which to show us the trials of the journey. It’s a wise move, but it still takes some time to get into the story, since even though we only have a few point-of-view characters, we still meet many of the significant characters from the journey. Katsu also seems to increase the number of people in the party, though I could be mistaken about that. I seem to recall her stating a number above 100 at one point in the story.

Katsu admits to taking many liberties with the factual story, so it’s hard to tell if her portrayal of the characters is an attempt to be true to life, or if it’s all fictionalized. Either way, her characters show depth and complexity, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in their lives. Going in to the story, we know about half of the characters are doomed, which I’m sure helps to elicit sympathy for them, but if Katsu depended on that to make her characters sympathetic, it works.

The horror she creates to dog the Donner party works well, in that it’s eerie and appropriate, but the horror explains away the choice the party made to eat the dead. That in itself is a horrifying thing to consider, but Katsu, aside from a moment near the end of the novel where she humanizes one of the antagonists, removes the choice from the party when she creates her own supernatural horror. Animals will eat other animals because it’s their nature; there’s no horror in that. The story of the Donner party as it stands is more horrifying than what Katsu creates, which lessens the impact of the novel.

The novel is further weakened by Katsu’s pacing. She covers a lot of time, with a lot of characters, and as a result, large portions of the book feel rushed, particularly at the ending. The final decline of the party takes place in a chapter or two, when I felt, to truly capture the horror of the events, it should have been covered in more detail. Katsu breaks down her story into months during the journey, and I wonder if she felt constrained by that format when she reached the last months, when the party was trapped in the mountains.

I thought a lot about how I wanted to rate this book, stuck between three stars and four. The story is slightly disappointing, especially after all its hype, but in the end, I gave it four stars because Katsu does a fine job telling her story. She refrains from overdone similes, which I’m starting to see more and more in horror, and she captures atmosphere and character well. It’s more literary than what one usually sees in the genre, and that along should give the book a distinction.

Started: June 2, 2018
Finished: June 10, 2018

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