Friday Reads: Mockingjay

My sprint through The Hunger Games novels comes to an end with Mockingjay. A little bit of research online suggests that this is the book which disappointed many of Collins’ readers the most. As with my previous Friday readers there are spoilers ahead, so please read on with care!

I can see why fans didn’t love this book. If you were drawn to the violence and the romance of the games rather than the politics and propaganda then those key elements continue to step back as the series progresses. Gale, one of Katniss’ two potential love interests, comments to Peeta that she won’t choose between them on the basis of who she can’t live without, she’ll choose the boy who will best guarantee her own survival. It’s a cold observation, and one which Katniss denies on the spot, but it’s also a telling one. The heart of this series – and the element of it which seems to make Collins tick – isn’t the emotional relationships but the political ones. The tension between them powers the novel and fuels some fascinating showdowns – but I suspect the tension between them is also what disappointed many readers.

It also disappointed me. Collins is good at characters and at their interactions, and I admit I felt robbed when major characters (two in particular, for me) died almost as a footnote to the action and the emotional aftermath of their deaths on Katniss on other characters wasn’t really explored. There’s a significant personal betrayal which, I felt, should have markedly changed the way we viewed one major character, but which was dealt with quite quietly and reasonably off-stage. These feel like missed opportunities . . . while turning the city centre into a death-trap ‘arena’ felt like a relatively clumsy shoe-horning in of a Hunger Games scenario to please fans, and offered little plot, character or story development. It also, as I felt in Catching Fire, comes so late and so briefly in the novel that it seems unnecessary; I would have preferred no form of arena battle, and a more elegantly staged coup.

But I still love the things which I view to be at the heart of this series: the propaganda encased in glittering consumerism, the behind-the-scenes politics of this world. The Hunger Games has, I think, nothing to do with the pitched arena battles at all; rather, the entire world Collins has created is engaged in it all the time – as Katniss discovers. It’s about controlling people through programming and entertainment, distracting them from a political reality by providing an inspirational figurehead. It’s worth noting the repeated trope that when she is staged and delivering a political message at the direction of the politicians, Katniss is wooden and awful. It’s only when it comes to something she cares about that she comes alive. Forget political factions, influence and money: the inspirational messages here are about community, human decency and putting an end to the appalling, institutionalised exploitation of many people by a privileged few.

I have criticisms of this series. It’s addictive but flawed; it doesn’t always balance the conflicting demands of politics, character and story well; it’s frustrating that the novels touch on so much but don’t have time or space to explore everything they should – especially in Mockingjay. But there is wonderful scope here, there is an ambitious world view and a powerful set of messages and ideas which are well evoked . . . and with each novel I’ve read (unlike some other readers) I’ve found more to admire in Collins writing. I’m pretty sure I would pounce on a new novel . . . knowing that I’m liable to find it as fascinating, infuriating, flawed and enjoyable as The Hunger Games trilogy.

I think I recommend this series quite highly . . .