Hunger [Little, Brown and Company], the debut novel by Elise Blackwell, is a gaunt, perfect little story of appetite and desire at the fall of Stalinist Russia. In its lean, sparse language, Hunger opens with an elderly botanist waxing poetic from his New York apartment about his life in Leningrad during the dark winter of 1941. In a climate where parents offer their children’s sexual favors for food and the bark has been stripped off the trees for soup, this man and his studious wife are entrusted to preserve rare seed and plant collections. In the bleakest hours of this winter, the botanists of the institute make a pact: no matter how desperate conditions become, they will protect a precious cache of seeds they've spent a lifetime gathering, as these kernals and grains may be their only promise for a future.
The narrator, who is never named, would be a hard man to like if it weren’t for the brutal honesty of his tale--honesty that validates him and causes the reader to forgive (and maybe empathize with) him as merely human, succumbing to passions of the flesh in health, and ultimately doing whatever he has to do to survive in those darker times.
There are rich reflections on happier days, traveling across the world’s remote corners to build the collection, indulging in beautiful women and luscious fruits with a lavish, unrestrained passion and guilty appetite-- and the regrets of selfishness and a diminishing pride that leaves him sucking on a few grains of rare, stolen seed from the collection--ultimately the greatest sin and betrayal.
Based on true events from World War II, it would have been easy for Blackwell to litter the pages with grotesque images of pain and suffering in weighty, decorative language. Instead, Hunger is filled with a kind of a beauty in its precision and barrenness, while at the same time it serves as a metaphor of restraint and deprivation in and of itself. It’s a book small enough to digest in an afternoon, but its haunting, multi-level themes will stick to your ribs long afterward.