How have we possibly gone 229 days without a book review? Throughout primary and secondary school, I was a voracious reader. Then in college I fell off, as reading became more of a chore. Once I was living in the real world (and riding on real public transportation), books became a big part of my life once again. But now I’m just another LA driver, too self-absorbed to crack a book. While that’s not exactly true (I’ve been slowly working my way through House of Leaves), my rate of consumption has dropped dramatically (I’ve been slowly working my way through House of Leaves… for the last year). Maybe all that is about to change though, because I now present for your pleasure a review of Lois Lowry’s classic, The Giver. No, not the movie. The book.
The Giver is high up on the list of novels every young person should read, but that managed to slip through my cracks. It is joined there by the likes of The Outsiders, Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby, The Bible. (Sadly, the joke in that last sentence – The Bible – is the one book on that list that I actually have read. Me!). The Giver was released in 1993 when I was turning four, but it was already considered essential reading by the time I was an essential reader. At that point, though, I had no time for young adult fiction. I was too busy reading Frank Herbert’s Dune for the fifteenth time.
Maybe I missed my opportunity to really read The Giver the way it was meant to be read. And that is why I continued to avoid it, much like Ender’s Game – though I don’t think Lois Lowry is as terrible a person as Orson Scott Card is. But here we are, well in the midst of a YA renaissance that The Giver is more than a little responsible for. It has finally earned its own film adaptation, and while I was not originally planning on seeing it, I did come up with the idea of reviewing both pieces of media separately this weekend – knowing all the while that early reaction to the movie has not been positive. So I scrambled to one of my local library branches after work on Friday, and snatched up the last available copy of the book. Everybody’s reading this thing.
The first pleasant surprise (in a book full of them) is that The Giver is not written in first person. From The Hunger Games to all the other recent YA novels that I haven’t read, almost all are written in first person. It is a device that can be used well, but often is not. Authors use it as a lazy way to establish a connection between the young reader and the protagonist, but it often also leads to clumsy chunks of exposition, and an uninspired narrative voice. Here’s the thing, Lowry does an incredible job of putting the reader in her main character Jonas’s head without resorting to making him tell us the story himself.
Lowry’s writing is really strong throughout most of the book. There are still a lot of awkward moments of exposition – like the in depth description of a character we never meet for no discernible reason – but they are cancelled out by Lowry’s handling of complex ideas. The Giver takes place in a tightly regimented dystopia (you’re welcome Divergent) where individuality has mostly been weeded out in an effort to encourage “sameness.” Upon the completion of his twelfth year, Jonas is selected as the successor to the Giver, a man who acts as the repository for all of society’s memories, dating back generations. As Jonas learns more about the way things used to be, he wonders if his current efficient existence is really best for the world.
It’s the kind of plot that has become pretty standard in the years since The Giver‘s publication, but at the time it was probably somewhat unique for young adult fare. Lowry’s characters exist in ignorance of many concepts that we take for granted, and her ability to convey these concepts like “color” and “snow” as if they have never been described before is the novel’s greatest strength.
Lowry doesn’t have much interest in adhering to classic structure. In that way The Giver kind of feels like something Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut might have written. Nothing really happens in The Giver, especially for the first three-quarters of the book. For the most part, it is a very cerebral experience. Even the ending is ambitiously vague. All of this may explain why it took so long to mount the movie-making expedition. The Giver is the kind of book Hollywood executives would call “boring.” In the sense of blockbuster action – it is boring. There are a couple shocking moments (and some really cinematic descriptions in the narration), but overall I am very worried about the product that director Phillip Noyce has likely loosed upon us.
“Worried?” you say. “Why do you care?” Well, I’m not really sure. I guess The Giver still stuck with me, despite the fact that I am now outside of its intended demographic. I’m going to see the movie (look out for that follow-up review tomorrow), but I am dreading it. Reading the admittedly short book in a matter of hours did connect me with the characters and story. I enjoyed Lois Lowry’s The Giver. I wish I had read it all those years ago, instead of pretending to understand all of the political shit in Dune. Again.