Hunger, the first of Elise Blackwell's four novels, is set in Leningrad during Hitler's siege of the city. During the first winter of the siege, Leningrad suffered a terrible famine. The unnamed narrator of Hunger is a botanist who spends the "hunger winter" helping to guard a precious collection of edible seeds, which could help keep him and his beloved wife alive--if he is willing to compromise his professional ethics by stealing them.
This novel is a quick read, partly because of its low page count, but also because of Blackwell's clean prose. It gets its elegance from straightforward grammatical structures combined with thoughtful diction. Again, the novel takes little time to read, but plenty of time to absorb after you put it down.
So many times, dozens of times, I was told how lucky I was to have no children, how it was easier for us with fewer mouths to feed, not having to hear the horrible cries, to watch those we cherished more than anything, those who depended on us solely, suffer. Oh, the responsibility, people would say. And I would think, oh, the clarity.
Moral clarity, for this narrator, is as elusive as a unicorn.
We don't witness the narrator's crucial choice midway through the book, we are only told what it was and what came after. We don't witness what happens to his wife, we only know that it happened. What we do see is powerful, but I wished for more. I longed for the gripping sensations that I believed would come with being shown these events.
Fortunately, by the end of the novel, I understood that these "off-stage" moments weren't the most important turning points in the story. The events themselves don't cause major changes in the narrator as much as his hindsight does. He isn't recognizably changed until he has had time to reflect on and process the past. The turning point arrives when we see how the narrator comes to terms with what happened during the winter of hunger, and the aftermath of his choices is just as powerful to watch as those dramatic scenes would have been. In the end, I was most interested in the condemning and redemptive power of his small acts and reflections.
This is a debut to be proud of, and I'm looking forward to Blackwell's later novels.