The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

hungry ghostsI had very mixed feeling while reading Shyam Selvadurai‘s newly released novel, The Hungry Ghosts. It is a gripping and captivating novel, but perhaps more crucially it is a brave and important novel. The story focuses on Shivan, the ‘chosen one’ in his family. It traces his uncomfortable childhood in Columbo as his grandmother’s favorite child, then shifts to Toronto where Shivan’s family immigrates to following the ethnic violence in Sri Lanka in the 1980’s. For me the story really takes off when Shivan returns to Sri Lanka to help his ailing grandmother and gets involved in a relationship with an old classmate. The story concludes in Vancouver, years later, with Shivan still haunted by his time in Sri Lanka. Yes, it is a rather epic tale.

In The Hungry Ghosts Selvadurai does what I was hoping Michael Ondaatje would do with Anil’s Ghost: that is write a political novel revealing the atrocities of ethnic violence and human rights violations in Sri Lanka over the past 30 years. Selvadurai jumps into the quagmire of Sri Lankan politics with aplomb and bravery. His protagonist, Shivan, is a homosexual born into a privileged class parented by a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother. At times the interplay of these aspects of his background are subtle and nuanced, while at other times the pain they bring are at the forefront of the story.

The political angle of the story does not stop in Sri Lanka. It also continues in the Canadian part of the novel. Here Selvadurai deals with the tensions of being an immigrant in Canada in the 1980’s. Is it better to ‘assimilate’ or ghettoize yourself by associating only with other immigrants. Added to this, of course, is the sometimes explicit imperialism of being a gay minority. I think that in both the Sri Lankan portions and Canadian portions Selvadurai reveals aspects of the two cultures that at times would rather be swept under a rug.

The mixed feeling I had about the novel had nothing to do with the above aspects. The macrocosm of the story is subsumed with familial tension. This tension is so well drawn that I felt uncomfortable as I read. Ultimately, it was this tension that gave me mixed feelings about the book. Members of the family are so awful to one another that it prevented me from enjoying the book. Everyone is alienated from one another. I needed for there to be some love and affection some where, but when it did occur it was fleeting. However, this one weakness in the book may reveal more about me than about Selvadurai: I flee from tension, particularly of the familial variety.

Who would like this book? Selvadurai is a Sri Lankan Canadian writer who is not as well known as Michael Ondaatje. That could change with this novel. Both are literary writers of great talent, but Selvadurai represents a younger generation. I hate to say that this makes Selvadurai more relevant, but he does deal with touchy issues in a way that Odaatje hasn’t in recent years. Overall, The Hungry Ghosts would appeal to anyone wanting a good yarn that will also teach you about another place and another way of life.

I should also add that if you have not read Funny Boy or the Cinnamon Garden by Selvadurai, they are delightful.

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Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Lantern-Square-Button52booksorbust will be taking a bit of a hiatus for the month of April. I will be participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. For those who don’t know, that means I will be dedicating the month of April to working on my still unfinished novel. I’m hoping that by the end of the month I will have a workable rough draft. So my writing time will be dedicating to the novel instead of the blog. I hope to still post one review a week, but bear with me if things are not running a smoothly as we are used to.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

zThe second I saw Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler listed on NetGalley I knew I had to read it. I have been a fan of the Fitzgeralds since I read The Great Gatsby in high school. I am enamored by the legend that surrounds them and the other great writers of that age: Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Max Perkins. Z follows in the tradition of Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, That Summer in Paris by Morely Callaghan and Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill – a fictionalized telling of the time. The story that is told is one we know well, the difference this time, however, is that Zelda is the center of attention rather than a mere spectator.

Fowler has chosen a formidable character in Zelda. She has often been regarded as a Jazz age playgirl whose life, in the end, goes helter skelter. That rendition of her life is far too simple and Fowler does a good job at filling in the gaps. Most importantly, Fowler gives Zelda’s motivation for many of the antics that she is know for. The interplay between Zelda and Scott shows just how troubled Scott was and how his cruelty pushed Zelda over the edge.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Z is the way in which Fowler depicts Zelda’s fraught relationship with Hemingway. The animosity between the two of them has often been commented upon, but never explored. I don’t know how much of Fowler’s rendering is grounded in fact but she places a plausible scenario before us to consider.

Who would like this book? Overall, I recommend this book very highly, particularly if you are a fan of the Fitzgeralds and the Lost Generation. It is well, written, well told and well researched. Yes, it is a story you’ve heard before, but the perspective is considerably different this time around. I imagine Z will become a book club favorite in much the same way as Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things have. There seems to be a certain trend in literature right now to retell the stories of the wives of famous men. This I find slightly troubling, as though these women are only of note because of who they are married to. I feel that Z escapes this trend to a certain extent as Zelda is continually striving to find definition for herself outside of the role of wife. In fact, by the end of the novel being referred to as Scott’s wife is almost enough to send her back to a mental institution.