Book of the month
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Date: 13 March, 2006

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'It soon becomes clear that hunger is far more complex than a symptom of poverty.'

Charlotte Haines Lyon devours a thought provoking read on the history of hunger.

During my more righteous days, fasting was supposedly a central part of my spiritual life. At church anybody important fasted on a regular basis, especially if they needed to discern God’s will. I tried it once.

Wondering whether to apply for a job, I decided to do the holy thing. However, hungry by lunchtime I decided that God wanted me to stay where I was and tucked in to a cheese sandwich. Since then the nearest I come to saintly fasting is missing the odd chocolate bar during lent.

I live so in fear of the pangs of hunger and the accompanying nausea that I am always prepared with a range of snacks. Breaking fast really is the most important time of day and heaven help anyone who gets in the way. Food, one way or another is central to my life.

So it was with great interest that I read Russell’s opening sentence, 'Hunger is a country that we enter everyday.' 'How true', I thought, 'but I never stay there long.' I was more concerned about the ‘starving children of Africa’ who seem somewhat imprisoned by this state.

But Russell’s encyclopaedic meditation is not as simplistic as focussing on haves and have nots. Rather she examines the role of hunger in history, war, medicine, religion, politics and the general shaping of the world. It soon becomes clear that hunger is far more complex than a symptom of poverty.

Starting by describing the frankly bizarre antics of 'hunger artists' Russell immediately illustrates the macabre fascination and power that bodily mortification holds. (Think David Blane suspended above the Thames with no food, and then add Victorian twists to such behaviour.)

If you work through the pain barrier, apparently three days or so, it is possible to become extremely lucid in thought, which can become addictive. The withdrawal from food completely also has tremendous but disturbing power on others. Ghandi, the suffragettes and more recently Irish Republican prisoners have proved this without fail.

We also learn that diet fads and heinous views of women and food are nothing new. During the 18th and 19th Centuries it was thought that women could nourish themselves through the elements in the air!

Fascinating stuff, but what about the ‘starving children in Africa’? Are they lucid and holding power? It is when Russell starts to tackle enforced starvation she really pulls you in and tears at your emotions.

Long-term hunger, especially that which is continually based on little food rather than none, is devastating to the mind, body and soul. She all too vividly catalogues hunger’s effects in every part of the modern and bygone world, whether the Irish famine, Jewish starvation in wartime ghettos, families starving in America, India or Africa.

This is possibly the most sobering and harrowing account of human failure I have read. This is partly because we are talking food here, something that I and all around me have plenty of. There is no reason that people should starve.

Russell with her beautiful prose, breaks the image of hunger as an African phenomenon. She slams home the realisation that food is vital not only to making our bodies work, but to ensuring healthy minds, healthy hearts to love and genuine humanity.

This is a provoking insight to hunger and food for thought when it comes to solving the current world crisis. Most definitely a book to devour during our Lenten fast.

Hunger: An Unnatural History
Sharman Apt Russell
Basic Books, 262pp
Click on the orange link to buy a copy and raise money for Christian Aid projects.