I quickened my steps to escape the wind lashing Waterloo Bridge and ducked left, looking around for a sign. I was searching for what I had imagined to be a gritty pub, where members of the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club were congregating: The Coal Hole. It sounded like a secret society meeting, but of course, it was just my overactive imagination at work. This was the Strand, one of London's main arteries, and I'd found the Club on Meetup.com, where over 45 people had RSVP-ed "attending" to validate and fortify each other's love for The Hunger Games, the first book in the celebrated young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
Leila, the Club's organiser, told me that this was the biggest book club they'd ever had. Other books that had also drawn large numbers of readers were Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, World War Z by Max Brookes, I am Legend by Richard Matheson ("It's the original vampire/zombie post-apocalyptic book and still the best!") and The Traveller by John Twelve Hawkes. The last one, surprisingly, didn't rate very well with the readers, but Leila explained, "Sometimes you have more to say about a bad book than you do about a good one."
Leila is in her early 30s. She works in the fashion industry by day and is a dedicated bibliophile by night. She has lived for five years in London, a city she says fires the dystopian imagination. This was her first book club when it started in May 2009 reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road with only six members. Since then, she's read every book on the reading list and has been to nearly every meeting.
For those who don't know, The Hunger Games is an event that takes place every year in a country called Panem, which occupies what used to be North America. The Games are organised by the ruling city, the Capitol, to keep its citizens in the 12 surrounding districts at bay. A boy and a girl are chosen from each district as tributes to compete in a televised battle in which only one will survive. As a reward, the winning tribute and his district will be showered with food and gifts, while the residents of other districts starve.
There was a good mix of people in attendance (most of whom were not "young adults"), and I was enthused by how closely they dissected the book. There was plenty to talk about: the parallels of power, oppression and entertainment between Panem and the real world, the creation of other "enemies" to distract from the real one: the state, and whether a world like that is really so far away. And there was love, something that I felt went beyond the typical like me, like me not preoccupations assumed of teenagers.
Someone called the book out on its name.
Why The Hunger Games? It gives it all away.
It would make sense if it's the underground name. But you'd think that the authorities would officially call it something more sparkly and glamorous...
Maybe it's a sign that the Capitol has so much power that they don't even have to dress it up. They can call it exactly what it is!
We tried to imagine the map of Panem - which districts might be the equivalent of today's modern day America? - and put an American abroad to the task.
We racked our their brains for ways we might rig the Games.
We put themselves in The Games: what would we do to win? Who would win?
"It's a running joke that people are drawn to this group in order to try and improve their chances of survival, but it's actually down to a damn good story," Leila said.
And as with any story with a brewing love triangle, the boys were pitted against each other. Team Gale or Team Peeta?
What does Peeta even do during the Games? Katniss is always looking after him!
It's that same old dilemma isn't it? Who do you choose? The nice boy or the bad boy?
I tried to defend him as the "quiet strategist", but failed. For the rest of the night, Peeta was nicknamed "the cake decorator".
Almost three hours later, we were asked to rate the book. It seemed unanimous that the plot was exciting and addictive to read. Many agreed, however, that it fell somewhat on the writing, and many also wanted to know in more detail how Panem had come to be. It's a great book, but with such a great story, it could have been so much better, seemed to be the sentiment of the night. Young adult novels aren't just for young adults anymore, just as young adults don't just read young adult novels, and in this way, perhaps novelists would do better to keep in mind the needs of an older audience, who require more persuading to suspend reality for the sake of fiction.
I wondered if the book club, being so exclusively themed, would ever run out of books to read. Leila didn't think so.
"We also read dystopian fiction, which has a looser definition than post-apocalyptic fiction. I've found that the genre is much wider than I anticipated. It's not strictly science fiction as many people believe it to be. What is also very interesting is that each era has a fear that is echoed in its literature. The mid-20th century focuses on nuclear disasters, the '70s and '80s seem to be preoccupied with plagues, and right now, it's all about the zombie. It's also a great indicator of attitudes and politics. It's more about the now than the future."
Then I asked Leila if she might have a personal anecdote to share as a veteran of the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club. Cheekily, she said, "My lips are sealed. What happens in book club stays in book club."
The Post-Apocalyptic Book Club rated The Hunger Games 7/10. Its review will appear on the Club's blog soon. The next on the reading list is The Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (more details here). Join the group for more updates.