A Review of Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein
Words By Sam Burt
Published February 16, 2023 by Bloomsbury
Hungry Ghosts unfolds over several months in 1940s Trinidad, where the tide of colonialism is visibly withdrawing, but the prevailing mood is uncertainty about the future, not celebration. This is a heady brew of a book, steeped in local atmospherics and so tautly plotted that the reader does not forget for a single page that a disaster is coming.
The novel revolves around three places: Bell Village, the Changoor farm, and a nearby barrack. Families of workers live cheek-by-jowl in the barrack, a ramshackle building of wood and tin, divided into rooms for each family. Among these are the Saroops—Hans, Shweta, and their son, Krishna. Hans works the land for the wealthy and eccentric Dalton Changoor, whose sudden disappearance triggers the plot when his wife Marlee receives a ransom note and asks Hans to stay on the farm for her protection. To the disappointment and hurt of his wife and son, Hans has internalised the racial and ethnic hierarchy that runs through Trinidadian society under colonial rule, and it is their growing disillusion with him as he recedes from the life he has created in the barracks that fuels Krishna’s rejection of ‘civilised’ life—the Village, the Changoor’s wealth, his Presbyterian School.
Hungry Ghosts is embedded in the social and cultural context of its time. Hosein uses the Saroop family to show not just the historic subordinate legal status of Hindus in Trinidad but also how that public inequality permeated the private sphere. For example, Hans and Shweta’s marriage is not officially recognised by the state because it was not consecrated in a Christian church. After a heated argument, Krishna realises what his father said about him under his breath “bastard child,” revealing what he thinks his son’s place is in the dominant social order. At school, meanwhile, Krishna is expected to play the part of a ‘civilised’ Christian, as distinct from his Hindu family. Throughout the novel, even the barracks begin to seem like a house under siege—from state-sanctioned discrimination as much as from nature itself, with the walls always seemingly one storm away from collapse.
One of the novel’s chief strengths is the complexity of each of these characters, especially their moral ambiguity. Hosein allows the reader considerable freedom to judge the relative importance of their many motivations. Notably, none of the Saroops is immune from the dream of a better, more comfortable life in the Village, despite their suspicions that they will only be transplanting their unhappiness somewhere new. Shweta is haunted by the death of their firstborn, a tragedy the parents never discuss with one another, and this missing daughter is the ‘hungry ghost’ of the title, her memory eating away at their strained marriage. Hans is driven by lust and adoration for Marlee—the luxurious lifestyle she embodies, and the dream of starting again, leaving past mistakes and tragedies behind—but also by internalised ideas about Christian civilisation and Hindu backwardness, and, probably, the belief that Shweta and Krishna will benefit in some ‘trickle-down’ way from his association with the wealthy. With adolescent righteousness, Krishna rails against the compromises, social climbing, and pretensions of his father, but nevertheless dares to dream that by moving to the Village he will win over the girl he loves. Marlee, meanwhile, who is in many ways presented as the novel’s antagonist, is also given a backstory that shows us how her character—her mixture of social conformism and self-interest—was shaped by an oppressive, suffocating marriage entered into as an escape from prostitution.
Breaking up the linear narrative with backstory chapters lends added depth to these characters, which is necessary given the size of the cast (a list of characters is given at the start). Often these backstories help us to sympathise with characters we otherwise would not, by posing their character flaws as the products of earlier trauma, as with Hans and Marlee. While the strength of this approach is that it extends our generosity and discourages us from judging characters rather than their actions, it sometimes makes it harder to discern what is really motivating these characters, and so inevitably some of the human drama and conflict risks being muddied or diluted. For example, through his backstory we understand that Hans is motivated by a fear of becoming his violent father, but how this relates to the decisions he makes throughout the novel is not always clear. Hosein also has one chapter shift back and forth between two synchronized narratives, so we can see what characters are doing in different places at the same time—a technique that helps sharpen the pace and avoid the feeling that we have spent too long in one character’s company.
My ARC’s blurb informed me that the novel is inspired by oral storytelling traditions, which I could feel in the frequent use of clipped, incomplete sentences to slow the pace and zoom in on revealing detail, as well as in the occasional direct address and the freely roaming third-person narrator, interspersing scenes with characters’ dreams and memories. The narrative voice is strong and distinct, engaging the reader for over 300 pages, although the downside of this is that sometimes I would have preferred a more externalised point-of-view, allowing the reader to infer why these characters behave as they do, rather than always being told the reasons. That said, even with such access to their interior lives, I finished the novel feeling that each character still represented a unique puzzle that was mine to try—and probably fail—to solve. In other words, continually describing the contents of their heads did not render these characters any less complex.
Hungry Ghosts is a heavy read: its moments of joy are few and far between; the plot advances slowly, marshalling many threads; and the reliance on close third-person holds us close to these characters’ fear, anger, and sadness. But Hosein has realized his characters in such depth that we care about everyone, while the dread-laden atmospherics leave us in no doubt about the tragedy to come. This is an impressive debut by a talented storyteller, which deserves a wide readership.