I 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.