When Mr Litlove declared he wanted to watch The Hunger Games movie on the weekend, I was surprised. I didn’t have him down for that kind of thing at all. And then our son said he was interested in seeing it, too. So I hastily tracked down the copy of the book I’d picked up along the way (as you do) and we ended up having a big discussion about it.
The story takes place in a future dystopia where a crushed rebellion has left its people poverty-stricken and tyrannised. As a way of reminding the populace of their absolute servitude, and as a bizarre form of entertainment (to which odd combination we must return shortly), each department is required each year to offer up by means of lottery a boy and a girl to take part in the Hunger Games, a vicious reality show whose only rule is to kill or be killed. The 24 contestants are taken to the Capitol and allowed to live in luxury while the training takes place; then they are deposited in a terrain that is controlled by the authorities and left to slug it out. Survival is the name of the game, and the winner will be awarded untold riches as well as the pride of their department, and all the while the populace will be gripped by the show, permitted electricity for once for the pleasure of watching children slaughtered.
Katniss Everdeen is the 16-year-old head of her household. Her father died in a mining accident, leaving her to care, at a tender age, for a little sister, Prim, and her severely depressed mother. Fortunately, before his death, Katniss’s father taught her to hunt in the forbidden territory beyond the fence, and in this way Katniss has kept her family fed. When Prim’s name is called in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to go in her place, her love of her sister being the best thing in her life, and the need to protect her a gut response. Called to join her is the baker’s son, Peeta, whose charitable act of throwing her burnt bread – bread that kept them alive in the dark days immediately following her father’s death – burns as a debt she has yet to repay. It becomes clear that Peeta’s feelings for Katniss run much deeper than mere sympathy, and as they realise that an audience-pleasing showmance is the best way to stay alive in the arena, Katniss feels her pride and loyalty to those at home pulled in different directions.
Like most smash-hit genre novels, the key to the success of The Hunger Games lies in its clever mash-up of significant cultural tropes. What can we spot in the mix? Gladiatorial combat, The Lord of the Flies, Big Brother and other reality shows that hang in the balance between torture and tedium. But the thing that struck me was a perverse rewriting of Cinderella. Yes, Katniss, you shall go to the Hunger Games. Unappreciated, carrying the burden of responsibility for her family, Katniss, gets whisked off by stylists rather than fairy godmothers, to get scrubbed up and beautified. Then in the arena her talents are showcased, she has undreamt-of opportunities for advancement, and she becomes unexpectedly desirable. Rather than the toll of midnight, she has the prospect of death as the abrupt ending of the fantasy.
It would be a mean book that killed off its main protagonist, and readers surely realise that’s an unlikely option; so the real genius of this novel lies in its tight, brilliantly-organised narrative. The early world-building is effortlessly done, and then the action unfolds seamlessly, with things happening just as they should, well-sustained tension, plausible developments, and true-to-life motivation on the part of all concerned. Technically, it’s excellent.
But what does it do with the interesting themes it raises? The idea of a reality TV show crossing the borderline and depicting death is a most intriguing one; as the rule of sensationalism shows no sign of lessening its grip, and so much that we watch smacks already of knitting by the guillotine, it’s tempting to assume it may happen one day. But what, then, are we to make of the complex web of pleasures and restraints that the Hunger Games embodies? Are the people of Panem so dysfunctional, so repressed and unhappy, that this is why they think it’s entertaining? In what way does the show remind of them of their abasement? Simply because the authorities can make them give up their children to it? And yet, Katniss and Peeta realise that they must please the viewing public, if their sponsors are to send them vital supplies. So the audience does have power, particularly where the sponsors are concerned. Sponsors, viewing public, authorities exist in a strange balance that is never properly explored. Is this because the centrality of the Games in the book creates a paradox: here we are being asked to feel horror for the Hunger Games, at the same time as they are offered to us as a form of entertainment. The sop is to identify with Katniss, but really, we’re just an offshoot of the nameless, faceless populace of Panem, watching it all from a safe distance.
And here’s another thing that intrigued me: the character of Katniss. Effectively, in this book the genders swap roles. Katniss is a hunter, she has all the strengths traditionally associated with masculinity – speed, swiftness, ruthlessness, and very few tender emotions to get in the way. Peeta, by contrast, is all about nurture and care; he’s romantically inclined, thoughtful, insightful. Katniss is not particularly clever, and in fact, has pretty much no emotional intelligence whatsoever; even by the end of the games, she mistrusts Peeta’s love for her, and is simply confused as to what she feels for him. This is the thing about survival, of course; it tends to take the place of development, in life as in narrative. But if The Hunger Games has been a huge hit with teenage girls, what does this say about their lives? What does this say about all the women who buy into the fantasy of Katniss in this book? That we are all too pampered, too worried about our protection, fed up of feeling so emotional, too reliant on the comforts of our over-civilised society? I’m just asking.
This was the thing about The Hunger Games for me: it provoked a lot of questions as to why it had touched such a nerve in our culture. And it didn’t answer them. But it was interesting to discuss them afterwards – my menfolk were not impressed with the film, though, in case you were wondering.
It strikes me as a bit cheap on the part of the weather gods that we are only allowed one May in a calendar year. I love it so; the crisp new leaves bursting out of their buds, long, pink-tinged evenings, soft, mild light at dawn and dusk with vibrant blue skies in the bright stretch of the day. Just the right amount of heat. Yesterday was the first day that Mr Litlove and I could enjoy sitting outside in the garden. And so we did our yearly inventory, reclining on garden chairs with cups of tea, making our way around the borders plant by plant as if they were schoolchildren in class, deciding how each was coming along, whether they needed help and in what form.
My main worry was a philadelphus, a gorgeous version called Manteau d’Hermine, which had been squeezed on either side by some rather boisterous ferns (and this is the only definition of ‘leaning in’ that I will countenance). So I had my eye on that, and on Mr Litlove generally, who sheds his gentle, mild-mannered nature to turn rogue with a pair of clippers in his hand. Anything that looks as if it might commit the crime of ‘getting beyond itself’ risks a severe scalping despite all my pleading. And for the first time in my life, I thought to myself, my goodness how incredibly middle-aged we have become. Normally, on the inside, I feel about 17, but there I was, regarding plants I had seen grow from seedlings into this mature garden, and it seemed so long since it had been just a vision in our minds.
When we first moved into the house the garden was a long, thin, isosceles triangle whose only beauty was a large cherry tree, all too near to the back windows. One dank and chilly autumn day, Mr Litlove hired a rotavator and dug all the scrubby, weedy grass up, shoulders straining against the handles, wellies sinking in the mud. Early in the afternoon there was a power cut, and when he went into the kitchen, now shrouded in darkness, the kitchen clock still read half past two. Mr Litlove then congratulated himself on having finished the job with so much of the afternoon still ahead of him, and I felt quite confirmed in my belief that he was an undiagnosed dyslexic. It’s funny to think we hadn’t been married that long then, three or four years at that point. We bought a climbing rose, the luscious Mme Alfred Carrière with clotted cream blooms that blushed charmingly pink as they burst their buds. And in the supermarket, my son – then an angel-faced toddler with white-blonde hair and dark blue eyes – picked out a red rose he liked the look of. I didn’t hold out much hope for it, but both plants grew and flourished on the sunny south-facing wall.
Then we decided to have an extension on the house, and a garage and workshop at the far end of the plot. The garden shrank to a lop-sided square and the plants suffered. The cement mixer took up residence in the middle of a flowerbed, and bushes started to die mysteriously, until I put two and two together and stopped providing the builders with so much tea. We had to move the red rose and feared it had died, but the white fought gallantly against the chaos and flowered vigorously, scattering velvet petals over the garish headlines of The Sun that the workmen read in their breaks. Mr Litlove had his first stretch of unemployment, the difficult one, where we assured each other we would manage fine, while mentally totting up columns of figures in the restless small hours of the morning. We weren’t particularly fine at all, for I was beyond tired and working hard, both of us too aware that mine was the only incoming salary. And we didn’t like each other much, having swallowed all sorts of things we should have said in those anxious, frantic years of early parenting and new careers. Things were coming to a head, though we didn’t know it then. Instead, Mr Litlove used his time to lay a patio, and to pave the area outside the kitchen, and to construct a beautiful winding path in a herringbone pattern of grey brick.
Several years later, when Mr Litlove was made redundant for the second time, our lives had completely turned around. The crisis had passed and now I was off work too, the first of three years I would take out with chronic fatigue. I can remember the feel of the grey brick path beneath my bare feet as I ventured outside after months laid up indoors, still weak and unwell but silently comforted by the beauty of the flowers, the orange blossoms of the philadelphus, the dancing buds of the fuchsia, the bough of the white rose, heavy with unfurling flowers, that was big enough now to reach out to me from its spot on the back wall. And the red rose we feared lost was starting to grow again, its tentative feelers offering hope. This time around Mr Litlove painted the house. To the extent that I believe in past lives, I feel convinced he must once have been a Lord of the Manor. It would be such a perfect job for him, to have a whole estate to tend to, one that he would survey from the saddle of a fine black stallion, issuing grand orders about the guttering on his tenants’ cottages. He would have married a version of me, one whose nature would have led her, not to teach, but to strap on a bonnet and go visiting the sick and the poor. From whom I daresay Regency-me would have caught diptheria and died. So there is much to be said for the 21st century and having reached the era of self-indulgent middle age.
The last change in our garden was the arrival of Hermes – or Mercury, I never know which to call him. He stands on one leg as if he had just bowled a googly, though one arm is raised above his head with a beckoning finger (happily, the first), while his other hand holds a strange implement the size of a very large spatula, which I believe may be the Greco-Roman prophecy of a television ariel. He came from the grand and lovely garden of Mr Litlove’s grandparents, and I vividly recall his arrival in the back of a moving truck. Two men arrived with him, papers in hand. ‘One small garden statue – Mercury,’ one of them read. ‘I’m not sure ‘e made it intact, luv. Ever since Bury we’ve ‘eard somefink rolling around in the back.’ His mate tipped me a wink. ‘Makes you wonder what dropped orf.’ I confess I held my breath as they went to unload him, fearful of the ribaldry he might unleash in the delivery men, and so I was most relieved when the loose item in question turned out to be the television ariel, which has never quite sat right in his hand ever since.
And now here we were, all these years later, with our son grown, and the university behind me, but still together and (for me) in better health than I had been in pretty much all that time. ‘I can remember planning this garden,’ Mr Litlove told me, ‘imagining what it would look like as I sat here, or stood in the kitchen at the sink. And it looks very much as I hoped it would.’ And I thought of our entwined lives that had suffered their own versions of frost and drought, disease and blight, but were still growing strongly together. I would never have imagined the road we would take to get here, but yes, our life looked pretty much like I’d hoped it would. How beautiful, how precious, how terrifying that felt.
As is so often the case, my eyes have proved to be bigger than my stomach, and despite reading every available moment, I realise I’m not going to get through all the books I set myself! Therefore, A Week of Espionage will be shifted from this coming week to next, beginning on 13th May and running through to the 19th. I don’t expect anyone was exactly holding their breath in anticipation, but if you wanted to join in there is at least another week to pick up a book in. Though really, given that I can’t keep up with my own reading, I hardly expect anyone else to!
The Slaves of Golconda’s next book will be The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which is a book I’m really looking forward to, as I’ve wanted to read it for ages and ages. We’ll be posting reviews on the 8th June and please do join us if you’d like to.
I’m also hoping to read this month Knausgaard’s first volume of My Struggle, entitled A Death in the Family (in the UK), Louise Erdrich’s new novel, The Round House, and Shirley Jackson’s classic We Have Always Lived In The Castle. And anything else I can squeeze in!
And many apologies, my manic reading has put me behind in all other online activities, including commenting on your posts and replying to emails. I will catch up very soon, I do hope.