“As a first novel, Hunger stands on its own:
a finely angled vision into hell, a spare portrait of the banality of survival.”
“A striking debut
a wrenching existential drama that Blackwell handles
with spare prose and abundant compassion.”Elle
“A riveting fictional account, based on real events... a poignant look at a wrenching period of history.”Chicago Tribune
“An exquisite little book . . . Blackwell craftily weaves history and botany through this utterly devourable narrative . . . a multicolored treat.”Los Angeles Times
“A remarkable, fact-based story of heroism and self-sacrifice under the harshest of war’s privations [and] of the desperate will to survive. . . . The prose of Hunger is terse, stripped to essentials, but it produces a lilting, nearly poetic quality. The detail is exacting and freshly presented. . . . A compelling exploration of the moral chasm that war can create.” Bookpage
“In Elise Blackwell’s original and engrossing short novel, Leningrad during the German siege forms the background for an exploration of love and betrayal, as well as for some richly sensual evocations of the pleasures of eating.”J.M. Coetzee, Booker Prize winning author of Disgrace
and Life and Times of Michael K
“All the more chilling for its poetic economy, HUNGER captures a sweeping catastrophe through one man’s tale of belated conscience. It is a haunting reminder that history has no mercy, that no matter how lofty our circumstances or our ideals, we may be tested terribly at any moment by the times in which we live.”Julie Glass, author of Three Junes
“An eccentric, courageous and poetic study of human beings in extremis.”
Julia Blackburn, author of The Leper’s Companions and Old Man Goya
“...a lucid, serene style, which contrasts with her grim subject matter and increases its nightmarish quality
.a profoundly disturbing reality.”Wall Street Journal
“Insightful and gripping... Hunger examines both the limitations and the possibilities of the human character... Fascinating.”San Francisco Chronicle
A striking debut . . . . a wrenching existential drama that Blackwell handles with spare prose and abundant compassion
A lyrical, haunting story about the cost of survival.
An elderly Russian migr reminisces about love in the shadow of war in this quietly effective, poignant debut. The opening chapters find the anonymous narrator ensconced in his New York apartment, waxing poetic about his life as a botanist during the siege of Leningrad, as he and his colleagues struggle to save the city's rare collection of plants in the botanical gardens. Deeply in love with his wife, Alena, another botanist, the narrator nonetheless embarks on a series of affairs, with a fellow worker named Lidia and with sexy, exotic Iskra. Both affairs become more difficult and tortured as the siege progresses and the city's population begins to starve. Blackwell wisely steers clear of the horrors that have been chronicled in many previous historical novels. Instead, she offers gemlike observations ("With Alena, who needed neither to find nor to lose herself, sex was only sex") and sensory detail ("one fat, perfect potato in salted water"). The juxtaposition of the gnawing torment of starvation with the narrator's memory of the exotic foods he collected and ate on his travels around the world before the war furnish the novel with many of its tensions and delights. Plotwise, there are some intriguing twists and turns as the war progresses, but the climax is rather tepid, with Blackwell underplaying her narrator's unusual and immoral survival tactics as food becomes increasingly scarce. Still, this is a well-crafted novel that works largely because of its small, evocative moments. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
During the Siege of Leningrad, when everyone is forced to make do with very little food, scientists in a botany lab make a pact to protect their stores of seeds of valuable and rare plants. The narrator, a man who has always managed to fill his sensual appetites, feels unable to maintain the pact. Under the pressure of trying to survive, he watches his beloved wife starve even while he continues to have affairs. As an old man, he replaces the forbidden seeds he ate during the siege and contemplates the alternating stages of his life between plenty and deprivation and wonders why some are able to survive with their principles intact and others betray their principles as well as their loved ones. The novel reads like a Turgenev short story, capturing both the philosophical issues as well as the sense of the cold Leningrad winter. KLIATT Codes: ARecommended for advanced students and adults. 2003, Little, Brown, Back Bay, 133p., Ages 17 to adult.
The 900-day siege of Leningrad, which caused the death through starvation, disease, and bombardment of nearly half the city's population of two million, is one of the worst atrocities of World War II. In her first novel, Blackwell describes the siege through a detached narrator who, with his wife, works at Leningrad's renowned Research Institute of Plant Industry. After Stalin's henchmen imprison the director, the remaining scientists must protect his rare collections "from rats, from human intruders, and from themselves"-at a time of mass starvation, the dedicated scientists are tempted to consume the plants and seeds. Though well written, well paced, and finely detailed, Hunger is curiously lacking in impact, largely because the author chooses to tell us, not show us, the horrific events of the siege. And she intersperses such commentary with information on the work of the institute, including numerous flashbacks to the narrator's worldwide expeditions and amorous involvements, which ultimately dilute the account. Still, this beautifully crafted tale is a worthy attempt to portray a monumental tragedy, and we will look forward to Blackwell's next book. Recommended for larger fiction collections.-Edward Cone, New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
An exquisite little book . . . Blackwell craftily weaves history and botany through this utterly devourable narrative . . . a multicolored treat.
[A] spare, searing first novel . . . a finely angled vision...a spare portrait of the banality of survival.
...a lucid, serene style, which contrasts with her grim subject matter and increases its nightmarish quality.... suggests a profoundly disturbing reality.
Blackwell's little slip of a debut derives from the life of the real biologist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov as it tells the story of a fictional scientist who survives the siege of Leningrad and life under Stalinism. The narrator is a scientist in the Leningrad botanical "institute," which is overseen and run by the Vavilov-based "great director"-until, that is, that gifted scientist is declared a reactionary by the Stalinists and later (in 1941) removed and secretly imprisoned. The narrator, in his own confessional tale (he tells it years later, from a "comfortable New York apartment"), openly admits his own moral weaknesses, not only as lover, but as scientist and moral being. Though married to the gentle Alena, a passionate and dedicated biologist, he's less than true to her, and is, in fact, something of a roué. That weakness alone might not have mattered so much had it not been for the sufferings of WWII, especially the horrors of the 1942 "winter of hunger" during the siege. The institute is a place of experiment but also an archive-holding specimens of seeds, grains, and tubers from all over the world. And even though, as the famine worsens, the scientists vow not to eat the specimens (but to "protect them at all cost"), the narrator secretly nibbles at them during his shifts as guard-and thus survives, while others, like Alena herself, sicken and die. It seems to be Blackwell's intent that her narrator's belated candor ("Maybe I am a coward and maybe I am not") will give him a moral stature and psychological weight sufficient to carry her novel through-but, unfortunately, that just isn't so. Every detail-historical, geographical, botanical-is perfect and in its place, and thematerial itself is gripping. Yet the fiction, psychologically, remains penurious, brittle, unalive. Ambitiously conceived, carefully planned, impeccably researched-but, like a kind of term-paper-novel, curiously unmoving. Agent: John Ware