The Hungry Ghosts, by Shyam Selvadurai


Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

The “hungry ghost” that supplies the title for Shyam Selvadurai’s new novel is the peréthaya, a creature that appears in a number of Buddhist and Sri Lankan myths. Its presence is over-arching in the novel with versions affecting all three generations represented in the story so it is worth quoting the author’s introduction, as drawn from the memory of Shivan Rassiah, the narrator and central character of the book:

My mother recently told me that she still dreams of her husband, the same dream she has had since his death. In it, she encounters him at my grandmother’s gate or standing by a pillar on the verandah or sometimes outside the market. He is reborn as a peréthaya, a hungry ghost, with stork-like limbs and an enormous belly that he must prop up with his hands. The yellowed flesh of his face is seared to his skull, his mouth no larger than the eye of a needle, so he can never satisfy his hunger. He just stands, staring at her, caught between worlds. For years, the anguish of that dream would continue into her day, because my mother believed she had caused his death by her anger and there was no way to beg his forgiveness, or at least reach some companionable peace with him.

In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya because, during his human life, he desired too much — hence the large stomach that can never be filled through the tiny mouth. The peréthayas that appear to us are always our ancestors, and it is our duty to free them from their sufferings by feeding Buddhist monks and transferring the merit of that deed to our dead relatives.

In their own way, the three generations represented in the novel all “desire too much” and each time they reach out to satisfy that desire (or hope) they only achieve more frustration and agony, adding a personal requirement for atonement to those of their ancestors which already are part of their burden. While the novel ranges over decades of time, The Hungry Ghost portrays a series of attempts by people trying to make things better (the hungry ghost’s desire to eat) and only making things worse with each effort.

Shivan’s grandmother’s issues come with her material success. Daya owns a substantial portfolio of rental properties in Colombo ranging from mansions rented to American diplomats (who pay the rent in dollars deposited to her already substantial offshore account in London) to slum dwelllings which she “polices” with the help of a hired goon, since legally evicting tenants who are behind in the rent is not an option in Sri Lanka. The enterprise is successful enough that she lives in a substantial villa herself — and she has a Bentley, with driver, on hand when it comes time to tour the properties.

The novel opens with Shivan’s memory of his thirteenth birthday when his grandmother takes him out in the Bentley — he hopes they are headed to a shop to buy the bicycle he desires but it turns out to be a tour of the properties. Amassing and maintaining the empire has involved a number of dodgy acts for Daya, with the resulting guilt, and her first step in atonement is to promise that she will hand it all on to her grandson. That is not enough, of course, and as the novel moves on more and more of her time will be devoted to spending her time and assets on building shrines at the temple she attends.

The asset bequest is skipping a generation because another of Daya’s failings is that she has rejected her daughter Hema, Shivan’s mother. As a teenager, Hema seemed destined for success, ranking first in the Senior School Certificate results. That produced a brief harmony with her mother who decided Hema should head to medical school after her Higher School Certificate exams. The reconciliation began to fall apart when Hema panicked and failed those exams. It broke down completely when her response was to take up with and marry a Tamil — since the family is Sinhalese, that effectively put the couple at the centre of the very violent sectarian disputes that plagued Sri Lanka for the latter half of the twentieth century.

Daya’s response was to cut the couple off completely. When Hema’s husband dies suddenly she is forced to ask Daya for help — her mother responds by supplying a residence but nothing more. Nothing more, that is, until Shivan’s thirteenth birthday when she unveils her plan to leave him her estate. She still will have nothing to do with her daughter, but begins to take over her grandson’s life — his willing acceptance is the price that is exacted to continue support for his mother and sister.

Shivan is uncomfortable with this from the start and a few years later, aware that Canada has loosened the rules and is accepting refugees because of Sri Lanka’s troubles, he gets the appropriate documents. Despite Hema’s love of her job with a local newspaper, she agrees that escaping her mother needs to be a priority and the three head off to set up a new life in Toronto.

Shivan’s looming peréthayas now include both his grandmother and mother — the self-discovery that he is gay adds a personal set of challenges, ones that his grandmother in particular makes worse. Life in Toronto proves to be a predictable problem for the three and, despite Shivan’s and his sister Renu’s apparent success at adapting, a part of all of them remains back in Sri Lanka.

All these memories and back stories are provoked by the impending trip of Hema and Shivan to Sri Lanka to fetch Daya (who has suffered a series of damaging strokes) and bring her to Toronto for her final years. Each chapter of the novel opens with Shivan getting ready for the trip — and getting distracted by the memories that it raises, each one of which seems to have resulted in more, not less, anguish.

The Hungry Ghosts is Selvadurai’s (long-awaited) third adult novel, following on the very well-received Funny Boy (short-listed for the inaugural Giller Prize in 1994) and Cinnamon Gardens (1998). I liked both of those books, so can be safely slotted in the “long-awaiting” category when it comes to this one.

Alas, despite the fifteen year wait, I felt like I had read this book before — twice, actually, since both Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens have many of the same themes as this novel. In all three, the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict, and its atrocities, are ever present — understandable, since Selvadurai has a Sinhalese mother and Tamil father and alternates his time between Canada and Sri Lanka, so that conflict cannot be overlooked. All three are equally concerned with generational and class conflict. And both this novel and Funny Boy add the element of a central character who has to fit the discovery of his gay sexual identity into the over-riding conflicts around him.

What The Hungry Ghosts has that neither of the other two do is the story line of Sri Lankan immigrants living in Toronto and how those coming of age in this new country cope with that new challenge (both Shivan and Renu in this book, since they respond very differently). For this reader, it was the best part of The Hungry Ghosts and I would have welcomed even more. For those who have not read Selvadurai, however, it might be wiser to hunt up a copy of Funny Boy — memory says that the author developed his other over-lapping themes better in that debut novel.

12 Responses to “The Hungry Ghosts, by Shyam Selvadurai”

  1. acorn Says:

    Thanks for the detailed review. I read both of the earlier novels and enjoyed them, and am ashamed to say I’d almost forgotten the author. It certainly has been a long wait. You don’t seem as impressed with this one, but I will read it as I think one of Selvadurai’s great skills is the evocation of atmosphere and family relationships.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I find it hard to determine how much of my concern may have come from unrealistic expectations. If you liked the previous novels, you certainly should give this one a try — it definitely has both atmosphere and family relationships. I think I approached it hoping Selvadurai would point his considerable skills somewhere where he hasn’t ventured before.


  2. Margaret Stone Says:

    I’m sorry this is unrelated- just wondering if your previous articles are available. They are so good! I’m hoping fro anything on The Big Why by Michael Winter.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      All of the more than 450 reviews I’ve done are on the site — if you check the right sidebar you’ll find links arranged by author (as well as a few subject headings). Unfortunately, I read The Big Why before I started blogging so there is no review here.


  3. Isabel Says:

    My book club just read Cinnamon Garden and loved it. One of the members recommended (just like you did) to read Funny Boy.

    I hope that this new novel is available in the “south” soon!


  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Could he perhaps be overdoing the old adage of write what you know? It can lead sometimes to diminishing returns, a sort of arid autobiography as it sounds like might be the case here (I note for example that the author himself is a gay man, suggesting he’s mining his own history but with decreasing returns).


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I think there is something to what you suggest — he continues to explore different aspects of his experience, albeit while introducing some new elements (adapting to life in Canada in this novel). That is certainly not unheard of in fiction (Jane Austen’s novels come to mind). I can’t help but think that part of my reaction may be that I am personally just so distant from his various elements that one novel (or even two) was enough for me. I certainly would not dissuade anyone from trying him.


      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Many truly great novelists explore an extremely limited set of themes or circumstances again and again. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. It’s just that here it sounded like that well was getting tapped out, in a way that it didn’t for (good example after all) Austen.


  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I see from wikipedia that he’s a creative writing course graduate. It does sound slightly like the stereotype of that sort of novel – I’d guessed he’d studied creative writing before I saw the confirmation of it.


  6. David Says:

    I can certainly relate to your feeling that you had read the novel before, Kevin. Although this was my first Selvadurai, I can think of a few other authors that repeat themselves like that: the one that always springs to mind first for me is Ahdaf Soueif who has written three brilliant novels, but all of which are variations on the same basic story, featuring very similar protagonists who I assume, as with Shivan in ‘The Hungry Ghosts’, are largely autobiographical. Still, as Max says above, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, and having read nothing else (yet) by this author I wasn’t forced to make those comparisons.
    Which is perhaps just as well as I really enjoyed the novel. His writing has an elegance and lushness to it, and his descriptions – whether of Sri Lanka or Canada – have that rare ability to engage all your senses so that I was completely transported into the scene.

    What I particularly enjoyed about the book, and you have talked about it in your review, is the way the Buddhist stories were woven seamlessly into the narrative – not only the hungry ghosts themselves, but all the mutually destructive relationships in the novel that echo the story of the Demoness Kali and the noblewoman who through several reincarnations devour each other’s children (!) until they can find a way of living with each other; the rice that can’t be uncooked once cooked (the past cannot be changed only accepted); the hawk who, like Shivan, must let go of that which he wants in order to relieve his own suffering… it all feels very organic and unforced in a way that (for instance) the zen aspects of Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ – albeit very entertaining – don’t.
    And I loved the bits at the start of each chapter where we come back to the present and Shivan preparing his mother’s apartment before they return to Sri Lanka to fetch the grandmother – his initial refusal to do the tasks, then his getting drunk and running away, before he finally does all the throwing away and cleaning (there is a lot of cleaning and repairing of buildings in the book!) nicely encapsulates all the themes of the novel without feeling at all heavy-handed.

    If I have one problem with the book it is that sometimes the way Selvadurai writes people talking feels clumsy – not the dialogue itself which is good, but all that “he cried”, “he mumbled”, he urged” etc. when “said” would serve just as well. It feels like a school exercise and makes me appreciate why some authors just let their dialogue stand on its own like a play script – if the characters are written well enough (and Selvadurai’s are which is perhaps why I noticed it) then the reader doesn’t need those kind of prompts. And he also has Shivan talking to himself on several occasions in a most unnatural way that put me in mind of comic books where a thought bubble will have the character telling himself in nicely formed sentences what he’s doing or feeling. It just jarred for me with the quality of the rest of the writing.

    I’d be happy to see this on the Giller longlist next week, though if the couple of reviews I’ve seen so far of Joseph Boyden’s new book are to be believed, everything else this year might be just an also-ran.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thank you for yet another thoughtful comment that addresses so many things which were not part of my review.

      I have seen a couple of other very enthusiastic reviews of this book from readers who had not read his previous ones — so perhaps my issue is more one of expectation and previous exposure than of the quality of the work itself. And a few months on, I would also plead guilty to under-weighting Selvadurai’s portrayal of the Canadian experience.

      As for the Giller, I also would not be surprised to see it on the longlist. Despite my reservations it ranks well with the contenders that I have read so far — Canadian publishing seems to be even more fall-loaded than normal this year, so I feel like I have not really read that many books. I’m awaiting the arrival of the Boyden since I did like the first two in the trilogy.


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