September 2, 2011

Hunger: A Psychtember Review

Most of my Psychtember reviews will be formatted a little differently than usual, to reflect the mental health theme. I've structured things as though the book is the patient and I'm giving them an assessment. Each axis is an aspect of the book that I'll give my thoughts on (characters, plot, etc.), and the validity score refers to how psychologically accurate I think the book is. Then I may list some other books that this one "shares symptoms with" (i.e. novels dealing with similar topics) and provide the patient's "statement" (quote) before giving the "diagnosis" (my shooting star rating). The rating still reflects my overall view of the book, using my standard rating system.

Patient: Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler

Presentation: (From Goodreads)“Thou art the Black Rider. Go thee out unto the world.”

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 battle her own inner demons?

Axis 1. Characters

We are introduced to Lisa when she is already experiencing a full-blown case of anorexia. While we are privy to a few of her memories, I wish we had been given more glimpses of how Lisa reached the state she's now in. I wanted to see more of her journey to this point — what had motivated her to begin, how it had progressed, etc. Her mother is hinted at having a role in Lisa's obsession with body image, but I wanted to better understand their relationship and history. Perhaps because I didn't know much about Lisa before this point, I didn't fully connect with her mindset. And I felt like the voice suited a younger teen, perhaps somewhere around age 14 rather than 17.

Lisa seemed so rational in other ways that I had a hard time seeing how she could be so illogical when it came to her anorexia. However, I think this illustrates really well how anorexia can kind of "hijack" the brain, sending its victim into a vicious cycle that is difficult to escape. Furthermore, my incomprehension of Lisa's behaviour likely mirrors a frequent response of outside observers to someone with anorexia; they just don't understand it until they've actually experienced it.

I found the relationship between Lisa and Tammy (a friend with bulimia) to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel. Their disorders "feed" off each other (pun intended, sorry), enabling each girl to continue along her path of self-destruction. Lisa barely eats anything, but she bakes all the time. And who does she bake for? Tammy, of course, who binges on the cookies and then later purges herself. Tammy's apparent self-control in her bulimic lifestyle inspires Lisa, in turn, to keep on refusing her body nutrients. I do wish, though, that we'd had more resolution to Tammy's story; after a certain scene she just isn't mentioned again.

I enjoyed the side characters of Death, Pestilence, and the horse Midnight, although they admittedly weren't that multi-dimensional. Death was fun, Pestilence was kind of disturbing (which he should be, although I liked his hopeful attitude) and Midnight was cute... War was the least fleshed-out of the Riders, and I didn't really care for her — but I don't think we were supposed to.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

I really liked the freshness of this premise — Lisa's struggle with anorexia is seen through a more fantastical lens than most "issue books." Her role of Famine, one of the four Riders of the Apocalypse, is used to give Lisa perspective as she sees first-hand how people in some parts of the world are starving and have no choice in the matter. I think the unique premise provides a hook that many other YA novels about eating disorders do not, and might reach readers who ordinarily would not pick up that kind of book, but are intrigued by the fantasy aspect of it.

In terms of the magic of the Riders of the Apocalypse, I would have appreciated a clearer explanation as to how everything worked, particularly Famine's powers. There's one scene where she starves another character (through her powers) almost to the point of death, but after being healed, oddly enough that character does not comment on what just happened.

Plot-wise, there could have been more action. I think I was expecting a plot encompassing more than just Lisa's own development. Despite the fantastical premise, this is really the story of her personal journey, as she recognizes that she has a problem she doesn't have control over and she needs help. We aren't ever given a solid explanation for why she in particular is chosen to be Famine — although her relationship with food definitely plays a part, I'm sure — but it is quite obvious that the role is intended to bring Lisa to some realizations about her life. But I did enjoy how Lisa realizes that as Famine, she has the power to help as well as hurt, and how helping others eventually leads to Lisa helping herself.

Axis 3. Writing Style

There's a very clear message within the pages of Hunger, and at times it feels too obvious, even heavy-handed. I hesitate to label it 'preachy' simply because eating disorders are dangerous, and so anything demonstrating this is really just well-intentioned. However, I think the manner of delivering the message could have been a bit more subtle.

Hunger did a really excellent job of evoking sensations as I was reading. Along the way, it had me feeling both fat and thin, both nauseous and hungry — in a book about an eating disorder, that's a sign of good writing.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

I thought Hunger was quite accurate in the symptoms Lisa exhibits. She obsesses over calories and cuts her food into tiny pieces, she's missed a couple periods, she over-exercises, and she displays symptoms related to extreme weight loss and malnutrition (she often feels cold, she's sometimes dizzy, her memory can be fuzzy) — these are all classic red flags for anorexia. The dad's lack of awareness of Lisa's problems also indicates how well individuals with anorexia can hide their disorder for a long time. The one aspect I wasn't fully on board with was the "Thin Voice" Lisa often hears, counting calories and reminding her about her goal of becoming thinner. I felt like she was quite separate from this voice, rather than it being a part of her, so I didn't entirely buy it when she would so easily give in to its demands. Again, though, I can't claim any knowledge of what it's actually like to have an eating disorder, so I'm merely speaking from my own perspective as a reader.

The bulimia is also portrayed genuinely, with the typical bingeing-then-purging pattern Tammy demonstrates. One of the scenes that made me most uncomfortable — a graphic description of one of Tammy's purging sessions — is also the one that felt the most real. When I later read in the Author's Note that Jackie Morse Kessler actually was bulimic at one point, this helped to explain how she'd written such a visceral, true-to-life depiction.

If you'd like to learn more about the symptoms of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, go here and here.

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Hunger?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

I really liked how the ending was handled. It demonstrates that there is no "quick fix" to an eating disorder — that it isn't something that happens overnight, even once the person realizes they need help. However, it highlights the importance of that recognition and the strength needed to ask for help.

Patient shares symptoms with: This list of books

Patient's statement:

"Feeling a hint of elation—a tenth of a pound thinner than yesterday morning!—Lisa set the scale back to its proper resting spot. But as she slipped on her panties, she caught her reflection again, and her happiness shriveled as she understood just how much further she had to go. She couldn't tell you how she'd know when she'd finally achieved her goal; in truth, she didn't know. But what she felt with all of her soul was that until she was thin, she would never be happy. 

When she was thin, everything would be perfect."

Diagnosis: 3.5 shooting stars

Note: There is some content in here that might make some readers uncomfortable, in particular a scene involving purging.

Check back tomorrow for my interview with Jackie Morse Kessler!


  1. I wanted to know more about Tammy too! Did she seek recovery like Lisa?
    You don't get to know much about War personally here but moreso in book 2 as well as the other horsemen. I hope as the series goes on things will become clearer.
    Great review Danya, I like the setup and the axis' :D

  2. I love the way you're choosing to set up your reviews for Psychtember, Danya.

  3. Ha I love your review style for Psychtember! You're always so creative :)

    I agree with what you said about the fantasy elements. I wish there had been a little more explanation about Famine's powers because I was a little confused on how they worked. The Thin Voice rang true for me.

  4. I love the way you set up this review style. It sounds so smart and points out things I never reflected on before.

    For example, "Lisa barely eats anything, but she bakes all the time." You're right, that's one of the strongest things about the book and I remember reflecting on it at the time!

    I love the fantasy element in this series. It makes it less preachy, too!

  5. Awesome review! I really like the Axis layout and the scale for these reviews! Awesome idea! :)

    I agree with you for the most part here. I did think the portrayal of the eating disorders was done very well, but was really disappointed by the rest of the story. The paranormal just... didn't work for me, felt too gimmicky. :(


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