The Giver shows us a dystopian society where there’s no hunger, pain or suffering. Everything is provided for citizens of the community and no one wants for anything. When twelve year old Jonas is selected to be the next Receiver of Memory, he discovers that maybe the community isn’t as perfect as it seems.
So firstly, I think I should point out that Lois Lowry is obviously a really talented writer. Her skill with words just shines off the pages - the narrative of this book is so calm and lyrical, it made it a very easy read. The worldbuilding is also very good. You get a real sense of the calm, ordered (and bland) community. I also liked the message behind it - without suffering, can we ever really know joy - which is a really interesting conversation to start up with younger children (although I think Pixar explored this theme better in Inside Out!)
I think the main problem I had was that this dystopia wasn’t very ... dystopish (it’s a word, okay?) The citizens don’t have much autonomy over their lives - all the big decisions like career and family are made for them and don’t get me wrong, totalitarianism is a bad thing. Obviously. But it’s only really in the last few chapters that anything chilling is really revealed (* * * spoiler alert * * * It turns out that when the characters in the book are ‘released’, it actually means they are euthanized, which although is pretty awful doesn’t come across as truly terrifying because no one seems to be dreading it very much. Everyone looks at being released as a good thing and I think for something to be truly dystopish you need to have all the citizens living in terror, hiding from the government, that sort of thing.)
In fact, I went through the first few chapters wondering whether in this reality the dystopian schtick would be that people are in serious danger of being bored to death. Everything seemed so bland, so dull. In the mornings, people sit around the breakfast table discussing what their dreams were the night before. I can honestly think of nothing more tedious than listening to variations on a theme of something’s chasing me/I’m falling into a pit/I’ve gone to school with no trousers on while I’m trying to eat my cornflakes.
And actually in a way I was right. It turns out that the society is deliberately bland in order to keep people living peacefully and free of stress, but this doesn’t make things very interesting or thrilling for the reader. It just doesn’t. Lois Lowry has a lovely way of writing and she’s obviously very talented, but this just wasn’t exciting enough for me.
Maybe the author was assuming that we all had the same ideals as her. I can see that if you come from a very privileged background the community in The Giver would seem quite nightmarish, but if you come from a background of neglect and hunger then I think you’d find having all your basic needs met and a guaranteed job to be pretty bloody nice, actually!
One slightly startling thing did happen, though: I was about 20% through the book (on my Kindle) and it all suddenly went a bit Operation Yewtree. The children in The Giver have to complete a certain number of community service hours and Jonas helps out at the local old folks’ home, where helps the residents in their bath. So you have a scene where twelve year old kids are bathing naked adults. Nothing untoward happened and I’ve been struggling to pinpoint exactly why I disliked it, and I think it’s because it was portrayed as a really normal thing to do. Sorry, but I don’t think any child (bearing in mind that this book is aimed at children aged ten and up) should be presented with a scene where bathing naked adults is portrayed as okay. Grooming, much?
I think ultimately my expectations for this book skewed my enjoyment. I was expecting to be thrilled; I was mildly entertained. I think this stems from the fact that YA can be such a broad definition. In my local library, Louis Sachar books are labelled as YA, but so is Monsters by Emerald Fennell. Louis Sachar boks are suitable for nine-year-olds, but there is no way I’d let a young kid anywhere near Emerald Fennell’s unholy combination of swearing, sociopaths and serial killers (although it was a brilliant book).
The Giver, for me, was an okay book but I think if it had been labelled as middle grade I’d have had different expectations and possibly either not have picked it up to begin with or read it with a different viewpoint.