Early in Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (2017), the reality of abject hunger yields actions that we’d like to pretend are not human; that are only performed by “monsters.” In one brutal account, set in a village gone too long without sustenance, a child cries out in its hunger, and then is heard begging its mother not to hurt it, promising it won’t cry out from hunger any more. The child is never seen again.
Likewise, in Bandi’s The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (2014), the quotidian nature of starvation under relentless state observation creates an internal logic taken for granted by occupants of this world (in one instance, for example, the righteousness of a whole family line being made to suffer for one elder’s minor work error); yet there is also something joltingly alien, science-fictional, about it to those of us reading from positions of negligible food scarcity and greater personal freedom.
Both texts, along with a range of Eastern European tales that grapple with the surrealistic horrors of Communist regimes that oversaw famine, war, genocide, and displacement, came to mind while reading Elana Gomel’s The Hungry Ones (2018), a small-press book a bit rough around the editorial edges, but with powerful ideas advanced through alt-fantasy mythologies.
And yet, for all the real-world history behind this volume, a third, less drastic cultural reference will doubtless prove more familiar to many readers: Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), in which a child crosses a divide and ends up in a world of curious spirit forms: a city that comes to life with its own trajectory, urgency, and preoccupations while our protagonist overcomes anxieties tangentially related to a different, subtler crisis in the family she’s lost along the way.
As in Miyazaki’s fantastic landscape, Gomel’s mysterious City is filled with creatures of unusual origin. The City is alive, we discover, and in the same, functional language used for farm animals, we learn that it “calves” slices of sentience called “tenants,” which fall into five loose categories that are explained to us as serves the story’s plot: trains, toads/ducks, flambeaus, khruts, and Buddhas (eidolons). Then there are the humans (dawns, noons, and dusks), the Pith, and the Hungry Ones. Consequently—also as in Spirited Away—our protagonist has a lot to learn about this city’s politics as she stumbles through it.
Kora, though, is doubly ignorant at this novel’s outset, waking all alone in an abandoned sector with only hunger to guide her, having lost all personal memories. It’s a familiar storytelling device, but it’s put to sufficiently intriguing use as two critical plot points emerge: first, the existence of creatures that are not zombies but certainly suffer a similar loss of consciousness and raging appetite—the titular Hungry Ones—and second, the fact that Kora’s hunger can only be sated by the consumption of those monsters’ wretchedly diminished life forces.
Interspersed throughout the story are also passages from the “real” world—dream fragments that for me triggered remembrance of the aforementioned mass-starvation texts. The City in The Hungry Ones is highly Asiatic in its formation (Gomel’s website states that it was inspired by Hong Kong and Shanghai), but these dream sequences also resonate with Holodomor, the 1932-33 genocidal famine in Gomel’s birth country of Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.
Such first- and second-world intersections hold much of the novel in an intermediate worldbuilding space, suggesting that its secondary realm (that is, this City founded by “Grandfather” and at war with “the Country”) is more allegorical than distinctly fantastical. But if the book serves more as allegory than second-world fantasy, what sort of allegory is it? Political? Personal? Both?
Certainly, as the book progresses, we come to discover that our protagonist’s personal trauma underpins much of this world’s mythology. Specifically, something Kora—under her real-world name, “Kara”—did or at least contemplated doing has haunted her across both sides of the Divide, and quite probably informs the construction of the secondary-realm itself.
With this gradually unfurling backstory, though, also comes a broader question of unpardonability, which quickly proves the most anachronistic part of this story set in an unending “Year Zero.” Can there be morality, the text often asks us, where there is hunger? It’s a question that belies some of the strongest Soviet-era writing on similar themes—like a market scene in Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1951), in which an encounter with meat of questionable origins (and a strong whiff of human provenance) is mentioned offhand, with only a touch of rather sordid bemusement on our suffering protagonist’s part. In Gomel’s tale, conversely, even though hunger is taken to be both the ultimate weapon and the ultimate enemy, humankind’s distinction from other animals and manifestations of nature (i.e., the tenants) is also treated as a straightforward matter of will. By this logic, people who eat human flesh thus lose their humanity in the process—instead of, say, prior to that terrible decision: first being dehumanized by any circumstances that would compel them to consider the choice at all.
It’s not clear, either, if this verdict about humanity is the narrator’s perspective, or simply a manifestation of Kora’s guilt over a deeply suppressed memory. The latter makes sense in the context of the City’s origins, with the spirit of Kora’s trespass adopting retributive forms. The former, however, changes the tenor of the tale as a whole, by laying the morality of full-bellied contemporary thought upon the historical discourse about famine in extreme times and places.
Nor is this the only structural hitch in Gomel’s tale. Much as I’m impressed with many of her worldbuilding ideas, The Hungry Ones’s plot progresses only with a great deal of irregularity, most noted in the placement of infodumps and unevenness of character arcs.
With respect to the former, one school of writerly thought calls for immersive novelty when there are intricate concepts to impart, such that the reader gradually acquires a given concept’s meaning through exposure to its application. Another suggests introducing the concept through highly engaging exposition or dialogue at first use. But The Hungry Ones tries to have it both ways: introducing a concept immersively, then interrupting story development after a few uses, right when the concept seems to have gotten tangled up with a few others and seems to need a firm narratorial guiding hand before the action can continue. (This is especially true for our introduction to all the different “tenants” in the City, which could have been much smoother.)
As for the latter, characters come and go in odd ways throughout. Not long after our introduction to the amnesiac Kora, for instance, we’re given a counterpoint character, Daniel, whose contrapuntal POV segments mark out his story as similarly important to the novel. While Kora stumbles about the City, learning the ropes, Daniel comes to us as a militiaman with great fondness for the carnivorous, sentient trains that run along blood tracks through the City and the Country (where he was born), and who might be succumbing to Hungry-One disease. Between the two of them—Kora and Daniel, the novice and the insider, the person-hungry-for-Hungry-Ones and the person-becoming-a-Hungry-One—a balanced narrative with the added intrigue of a mysterious shared past at first seems the novel’s only logical course.
But then Daniel’s character development is cut short first when he’s re-formed for Act II by the City and/or its constituent parts into “Hunter”—a character with a different standing, goal-set, and supporting cast—and then when he’s dropped to background-character status in Act III. All this occurs even as the original character’s importance in Kora’s backstory rises. Daniel’s death should count as a spoiler, but in fact it’s not at all a narrative beat befitting the deeper and more brutish history that the two characters share. Rather, it becomes an offhand, offscreen happenstance, only plainly marked by Kora later—and only then in relation to a rather superficial aspect of their character interactions.
In Daniel’s declining place rise new characters like Agatha, who gains textual prominence by clinging to him (literally) in his Hunter incarnation, and Adam, the tenant-who-would-be-Mayor, who in the latter half of the book transitions with minimal narrative tension from background to POV character, and also slips unceremoniously into the role of Kora’s sexual partner as her journey takes her into the Country and towards the Divide (that is, to the borderland between primary and secondary worlds). For the last quarter of the book, yet another secondary character, a tenant named Irene who emerged as a conscious being from a yarn shop (and so manifests a related form), also goes from backdrop to POV character, to perform a critical and fatal act of heroism that will go unrecognized by the rest.
Now, I’m actually quite a fan of stories with shifting POVs; especially in many European literatures, where, in contrast to many North American texts, the continent’s more recent territorial upheavals and histories of new trauma-sites heaped up on the old—often in rather dizzyingly short spells of war and dictatorship—is reflected in displacement, genocide, and related trauma narratives that involve the abrupt loss of characters and a cessation of their storylines. However, a critical component of those shifts is remembering to inspire interest in the fates of new characters taking centre stage. That works with Irene, to some extent, but less so with Adam and Agatha, who retain two-dimensionality even when brought to the story’s later fore.
The novel has stylistic issues, too—the likes of which a little more language-critical editing could have sorted out. Spelling and inappropriate word choice issues, along with excessive exclamation marks and stilted attempts at romantic tension via stiffly gendered observations, could have been better flagged during editing.
Indeed, taken together, these structural issues give the piece the feeling of an early draft, where ideas are encouraged to unspool on the fly, and where alpha/beta-reader feedback often gets incorporated into subsequent chapters via explantory remarks, rather than seeded into earlier sections. It’s not just a difference in literary context: this fairly wide-ranging tale doesn’t have the sort of polish that would reflect the work of multiple revisions.
Nevertheless, Gomel’s is an ambitious and vital story, to the likes of which we often give easier passes when from names in more prominent cultural positions. Specifically, The Hungry Ones offers a pointed challenge to the notion that fantasy ever truly leaves the real world, or should ever be read apart from real-world happenstance. It also confronts some aspects of the past that remain a part of many people’s presents, and will surely be a part of many more, as environmental displacement, food scarcity, war, and genocide collectively escalate under the myriad global pressures wrought by climate change.
The Hungry Ones is impressive enough in its current incarnation, then, that I do hope it gets a chance at republication (much like Tade Thompson’s Clarke-Award-winning Rosewater received with Orbit, after a slenderer version was first published in 2016 by Apex). Gomel’s ideas deserve an editor’s no-nonsense review of how worldbuilding information is parceled out in this story, why the tale diverts from and abandons specific characters when it does, and how to navigate with greater precision the trauma in Kora/Kara’s prior life.
The world of SFF, too, would benefit from such a curation—because the long lines of those desperately fleeing starvation into the City in The Hungry Ones are not at all the sole provenance of the past. Rather, our discourse needs more fantastical interventions like Gomel’s: stories, that is, which directly confront the dangers of letting time stand still—because when we forget our most egregious histories, we grant its all-too-human traumas a repeat role in our futures, too.