A review of
The Hungry Ghosts
By Shyam Selvadurai
Doubleday Canada (2013)
Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts tells the tale of a young Sri Lankan man named Shivan Rassiah. Growing up amongst civil unrest and violence, this story follows his journey as he tries to learn his place in the wheel of Samsara and accept the Karma of this life. His father’s death is the catalyst that catapults him into his grandmother’s home where money and control are at his fingertips but choices are few. He tries to escape this fate by leaving Sri Lanka only to find his new homeland Canada is not the haven from himself he thought it would be. Shivan is caught between the responsibility of his mother and sister, the expectations of his grandmother, and the hardships of living as a homosexual in an unaccepting society. Shivan’s Grandmother, “despite her sternness, had a girlish love of” (18) Buddhist tales. These tales weave their way throughout the novel, mimicking and mirroring the lives of the characters.
Selvadurai captures my attention right away. He fills his novel with subtle yet beautiful details of love, passion, anger and fear. Each character comes alive and I felt emotionally connected, one way or another, to them all. The grandmother character is especially unique; she is strong and poignant from the first page. A Sinhales woman with much wealth, she is “a woman who had others carry things for her” (3). She is a force throughout the story whose power to dictate the lives of the other characters, across oceans and time, is sadly fantastic. Though, she overestimates her grandson’s reverence to her:
my grandmother stepped over the photograph as if she had not even noticed it, and I understood that she was so confident of her dominance she did not fear my judgement…that was the moment, as I now recall it, when my betrayal of her began (11).
But he misjudges her as well, and this misjudgement of each other affects them both in ways they could never imagine: her economic greed and his emotional greed has a rippling effect reaching many lives and ultimately results in Shivan’s unhappiness instead of the freedom he is so desperate to find.
But in the end, it is the character Shivan whom I fell in love with. He is a foreigner in the land he escaped from and the land he escaped to. He is a wanderer between political and racial lines. He experiences passion and love like I’ve rarely seen written, and despite this passion and love, he is the saddest character I’ve ever read. His innocence is in juxtaposition to his experience–his happiness shadowed by pain, guilt and obligation. He thinks he can protect those he loves from who he is and what his family represents in both Sri Lanka and in Canada, but he should know better. In neither country is he ever afforded the freedoms he desires, and in both places he must suffer consequences he tries so desperately to avoid. I want to hug him and shake him at the same time. I want to protect him from himself and his grandmother while never stifling who he is. It’s an almost impossible feat that I am still struggling to accept.
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Born and raised in Calgary, Crystal has been writing for over fifteen years and studied creative writing at Mount Royal University. She engages with her daughter’s ever evolving views on the world, while enjoying wine and a postcard view of the mountains with her talented partner, Ryan. Crystal is most inspired in her own writing when exploring the Rocky Mountains or the banks of the Bow River.