The Hungry Ghosts

The Hungry Ghosts

Book - 2013
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In Buddhist myth, the dead may be reborn as "hungry ghosts"--spirits with stomach so large they can never be full--if they have desired too much during their lives. It is the duty of the living relatives to free those doomed to this fate by doing kind deeds and creating good karma. In Shyam Selvadurai's sweeping new novel, his first in more than a decade, he creates an unforgettable ghost, a powerful Sri Lankan matriarch whose wily ways, insatiable longing for land, houses, money and control, and tragic blindness to the human needs of those around her parallels the volatile political situation of her war-torn country.
The novel centres around Shivan Rassiah, the beloved grandson, who is of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage, and who also--to his grandmother's dismay--grows from beautiful boy to striking gay man. As the novel opens in the present day, Shivan, now living in Canada, is preparing to travel back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to rescue his elderly and ailing grandmother, to remove her from the home--now fallen into disrepair--that is her pride, and bring her to Toronto to live our her final days. But throughout the night and into the early morning hours of his departure, Shivan grapples with his own insatiable hunger and is haunted by unrelenting ghosts of his own creation.
The Hungry Ghosts is a beautifully written, dazzling story of family, wealth and the long reach of the past. It shows how racial, political and sexual differences can tear apart both a country and the human heart--not just once, but many times, until the ghosts are fed and freed.

Publisher: Toronto : Doubleday Canada, c2013.
ISBN: 9780385670661
Characteristics: 372 p. ;,25 cm.


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PoMoLibrary Jul 30, 2015

From our 2015 #80DayRead Summer Reading Club traveler Mallee: Shivan leaves Canada to help his ailing grandmother in Sri Lanka, a woman who preyed upon desperate Tamils fleeing the country.

Jul 16, 2014

As a metaphor for the decades of conflict in Sri Lanka, this story is tragic in many aspects, although ultimately resolved. As a reflection on the immigrant experience in Canada, or queer relationships in the 1980s, it is not uplifting. It all turns out painfully bad, in spite of the narrator Shivan’s somewhat passive attempts to make a life for himself. He is overwhelmed by the circumstances of his early life in Sri Lanka, having to choose between poverty for his family and affluence with a selfish, controlling grandmother. He escapes by immigrating to Canada, but finds that life as a gay student offers him only limited options, in part because of the damage he carries from his early life in Sri Lanka. He tries to make things better by returning to Sri Lanka to accommodate his past, but things get worse. Returning to Canada, he tries a new start which seems to succeed, but he finds his attempt to bury his past fails, and his only recourse is to give up what he has achieved and return to face his nemesis with unconditional compassion. The simplified message seems to be that for Sri Lanka to overcome its murderous civil war past, everyone has to be prepared to give up what they have won and face each other with forgiveness and compassion. Simplified though this is (and I don’t see much in the story that offers a more nuanced reading), it’s pretty inadequate as a political solution for Sri Lanka’s past.
What is really good about this book (and what I loved in his earlier books) is the beautiful writing, and Selvadurai’s ability to create a rich visual sense of the lush environment of Sri Lanka, and in this case its contrast with the dirty, grey, dusty, cold, barren Toronto suburbs (softened a bit by the scenes of UBC and the West End of Vancouver). And Selvadurai writes very effectively about their mental anguish. I can empathize with Shivan’s mother’s horror of life as an immigrant woman, and with Shivan’s wretchedness as a South Asian exotic object in the gay scene or his rage at his grandmother and everything she destroys for him. But this writing is undercut when Selvadurai repeatedly describes a character’s complicated reactions to words or events as if unable to make the characters understood without explanation. While it’s probably true that I would not get the complex interactions on a first reading, I found the repeated explanations intrusive.
More problematic is the unrealistic nature of many of the relationships – I often did not buy into the decisions that many of the characters made, Shivan in particular with his back and forth changes from hating his grandmother and Sri Lanka to adopting them, then hating them again and finally adopting them again. Yes, his character is drawn in many directions by powerful feelings of home, family, love, greed. But Shivan seems to barely think about his sudden changes of direction, he just feels he has to do it. Similarly, other characters, his family and his partners, jump to extremes of feeling without any intrinsic change. It seems that they are driven more by the needs of the plot and the need to fully illustrate the theme of compassion than by any internal sense. They act as if they are puppets more than people (and to an extent they are, driven by the forces in their lives).

Mar 24, 2014

This is the first book by Selvadurai that I've read, and overall I thought it was pretty good. I did kind of feel that the storyline progressed a bit slowly at times, and perhaps the book could have been a bit shorter. But, overall, I was drawn into this book, the characters and I really enjoyed the Sri Lankan setting. I did genuinely learn a lot about Sri Lankan history and enjoyed the book.

Jul 31, 2013

I can't wait to get my hands on this book! Selvadurai is one of my favourites to read.

Jun 24, 2013

Author maturing in style - appears simpler in composition,
captures not only the era
(the troubles that continue).
A very enjoyable read

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