Slim pickings

Hunger: an unnatural history

Sharman Apt Russell <em>Basic Books, 262pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 046507

When I first picked up this book, I wondered how the author, Sharman Apt Russell, a middle-aged American academic, could subtitle it "an unnatural history". Surely hunger is pretty much the most natural thing in the world. All animals, ourselves included, are driven by hunger every day of our lives. If we are vital enough to stave it off, we might pass on our genes; if not, our failings die with us. "You are built to be hungry and you are built to withstand hunger. You know what to do," Russell writes.

So presumably, an unnatural history of hunger is the story of people who do not know what to do, or people who know what to do but can't, or won't, do it. And this, in a way, is what it is. I say "in a way" because this is not a straight- forward book; it reads like a collection of essays and impressions, and it doesn't quite go in a straight line. As a subject, hunger is a rich banquet, and this author has darted from dish to dish, tasting a bit of everything.

Still, she makes an incontrovertible point: starvation is an enormously powerful thing, culturally as well as physically. When it is self-imposed, it can have huge effects on others. When it happens to you, it feels terrible. Russell herself went on a fast, and describes it here. As an experiment, it was only semi-successful. "The problem was boredom," she tells us. She missed the ordinary compensations of her western diet - "the gold star of chocolate, lunch with a friend". She fell down and banged her head. "I knew what I had done wrong," she says. "Dimly now, I remembered reading about this." In the end, on the fourth day, she gave up.

Reflecting on this, she writes: "I didn't want food any more. I wanted the meaning behind food."

There are a few interesting things here. Russell goes to a place called TrueNorth, a fasting clinic in northern California. The idea is that the greedy modern world has put everybody's internal compass out of whack, and the way to restore it - to make it point north again - is by not eat-ing for a week or two. And fasting, apparently, does "reset" your taste buds, making nutritious things taste good and fast food taste bad. After a fast, Russell tells us, hamburgers "smell of chemicals", but carrots taste "extraordinarily sweet".

Next the author muses on the history of political fasting. Gandhi underwent 17 official fasts and "uncounted personal ones" - he once stopped eating because his son was having an affair with a married woman. We get a not-bad potted history of the Irish hunger strike of 1981, and some quite interesting stuff on Sylvia Pankhurst and the suffragettes, and some heartbreaking anecdotes about medical experiments conducted in the Warsaw ghetto in the Second World War, and some horrifying accounts of people starving in the third world.

Eventually, though, you begin to wonder if Russell is trying to say too much. "Hunger," she writes, "is as big as history." Then again, it's "as intimate as self". And, what's more, it "cannot be ignored". This is a book about all kinds of hungry people - fasters, anorexics, people who can't get enough to eat - and they don't always have much in common. A book with lots of good bits in it, then, but not much flow.

William Leith is the author of The Hungry Years: confessions of a food addict (Bloomsbury)