The Hunger – by Alma Katsu. Narrated by Kirsten Potter

A review

Yet another book that’s been creating a storm. I forget where I heard about it first, but Alma Katsu’s novel started appearing on many of my favourite platforms including Kendall reviews and Ginger nuts of horror so I paid attention. The review that follows is based on the audiobook narrated by Kirsten Potter, so I hope it adds something to the reviews that are already out there.

The book is described as a reimagining of the story of the ill-fated Donner Party expedition with a horror twist. If you want to see how closely it follows the historical narrative you can check out Alma’s blog here. But, in a nutshell, the story follows a real journey of a wagon party in 1846 as some ninety odd settlers as they made their way from Independence, Missouri to California. They became stranded in the snowbound passes of Sierra Nevada and purportedly resorted to cannibalism in their struggle to survive.

Accolades for the book include The Hunger making NPR’s list of 100 Best Horror Stories and being named one of the 21 best horror novels written by a woman. It’s now being optioned for film production by Ridley Scott.

So, does the story live up to the hype? Well, if you know how I listen to my audiobooks from previous reviews, then you’ll know I tend to partake during the early hours of the morning. So the idea of listening to a horror book at these times adds some context to how scared I am while immersing myself in the tale.

Let me say straight away that Kirsten Potter’s narration is the perfect mix of storyteller and dramatist for this kind of tale. She has quite a breathy style, but to my mind this doesn’t detract from the listening at all and her separation of character’s voices works very well for both male and female. She succeeds in creating atmosphere in the scenes, particularly in evoking the ambiguous sense of dread that pervades this novel.

Despite a sense of being on the wide open plains of America, the ever impending doom over the party and the notion that they are being tracked creates a ‘closed-box’ feel to the story. There are numerous flashbacks which are skilfully written and I never lost sense of what was happening or when. These serve to set the characters in the mind of the reader, and I think it’s fair to say that the majority have dark secrets to hide and are in some way running from their past. The author manages to make the reader/listener identify with every one of them – even the most despicable. From a teenage girl haunted by the voices of the dead, to a lone man fleeing a misplaced guilty conscience, to the errant wife of the wagon train’s leader.

The setting is wondrously described and I had no problem imagining the baking heat of the mid-west plains to the freezing heights of the Sierra Nevada mountains. All are expertly described, together with harrowing scenes of bestial attacks, mass graves of the Hunger’s victims and depictions of the hardship endured at every step. You get the sense that none of the characters are safe, but I’ll not spoil it for you by saying how things end up. Suffice it to say that the book will leave you affected afterwards. I’d be surprised if it didn’t have you reaching for Wikipedia to see how much of the story was true.

The only niggle I have is that the UK cover for the book does not hold up to the scope and vividness of the UK cover (I’ve shown the latter here.)

So, my verdict? If you’re a horror fan you won’t be disappointed by this offering. Alma Katsu has departed a little from her usual territory with The Hunger and her next book is apparently a thriller drawing on her experience of working as an intelligence operative. But, I hope she’ll bring her pen back top horror in the near future.

The Hunger audiobook can be purchased here

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