Following on the heels of Helen Dunmore's acclaimed novel, The Siege (2002), one might expect that another book focusing on the Nazi blockade of Leningrad during World War II would have a hard time attracting attention. Happily enough, though, Elise Blackwell's debut novel, Hunger, carves out its own niche. Hunger focuses on efforts by a group of scientists to preserve a collection of seed specimens, even at the price of starvation. It's a remarkable, fact-based story of heroism and self-sacrifice under the harshest of war's privations. It is also a story of the desperate will to survive. Blackwell has employed an unnamed, rather mysterious narrator to tell her story of survival. He's a scientist, and apparently a participant in the work of his colleagues to preserve seeds; his insider's view of the siege is refracted through the prism of distance and old age.
Through this narrator, readers get a feel not only for the countless horrors which occurred, especially during Leningrad's "hunger winter"(ranging from offers of bodies and souls in exchange for food, to self-amputation of limbs, murder and cannibalism); an appraising light is also thrown, for example, on the misguided idealism of the scientists' leader, or petty complaints over an orchestra's performance.
The narrator's perspective is more tender regarding the stoicism of his wife, Alena, also a scientist, who dies protecting the seeds. Unlike his wife, however, the narrator has no interest in martyrdom.
The prose of Hunger is terse, stripped to essentials, but it produces a lilting, nearly poetic quality. The detail is exacting and freshly presented. Blackwell's most notable achievement, however, is a compelling exploration of the moral chasm that war can create.
Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.