A review by Ann Ellenbecker
Elise Blackwell's debut novel, Hunger, opens with the narrator musing over wonderful food, the textures, flavors, and essences of culinary pleasure, as he recounts a romantic evening spent with his wife before the seige of Leningrad during World War II. This is a perfect beginning to a story wrought with sensuous detail. But, what is plentiful one day turns to emptiness and destitution the next, namely the brutal realities of life in Leningrad during Germany's long torture of the captive city. Most who didn't die from bombshells or in Stalin's prisons starved to death. A powerful setting for a book eloquent with rich and abundant nourishment.
The narrator finds himself wrestling with the definition of courage in the midst of starvation: "I told myself that pain was the price of life; its absence was the step into death." He and the other scientists working at the Research Institute of Plant Industry vow that they will protect the specimens they and others have painstakingly collected over years. Part botanical homage, Hunger offers redolent images of leaves, fruits, grains -- the indelible descriptions of mangoes and legumes, melons and berries literally made my mouth water -- then subtly turns to the stark reality of a mother boiling "rotten cabbage, lichen-covered stones, [or] cattle-horn buttons torn from once-fine coats" to make "soup" to feed her children. The destitution that fell upon the city was beyond imagination, and the scientists were forced to protect the seeds and plant specimens from animals, thieves, and themselves.
Blackwell does much in a small space. This diminutive volume holds a spare 133 pages and measures a mere four-and-a-half by seven inches. But, what it lacks in size it makes up for in elegant, beautifully descriptive prose. It's a tale of appetites of all kinds. She seamlessly interweaves the ironic contrast of desolation against lush sensuality.