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The Hungry Ghosts

by Shyam Selvadurai

“In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn as a peréthaya because, during his human life, he desired too much.… The peréthayas that appear to us are always our ancestors, and it is our duty to free them from their suffering …”

This myth is the primary leitmotif in Shyam Selvadurai’s long-awaited third novel for adults, which is also chock full of more contemporary themes: the immigrant experience, feminism, race and politics, the struggle to belong, and the concept of home. But it is the Scheherazadian stories interspersed throughout (and related by Shivan, a gay man in his thirties), that offer the main metaphoric resonance.

The novel begins the day before Shivan is to return to war-torn Sri Lanka to accompany his infirm, estranged grandmother to Toronto. As he prepares, Shivan reflects on his turbulent upbringing and on the odious act she instigated when he visited her as a young man. The earlier tragedy changed his life, and Shivan now finds himself unsatisfied and confrontational. His familial and sexual relationships, what he eats, where he lives, what he does: nothing can placate his anger, restore his happiness, or free him from the painful memories in his past.

Both Shivan’s story and Sri Lanka’s rich history are told through simple yet evocative prose, and Selvadurai’s first-person narrative, with its modernized Dickensian tone, is an effective storytelling device. However, the novel’s non-linear structure is (perhaps intentionally) disorienting, and the repetition of images and phrases (and of instances of parallel lives) overemphasizes the titular metaphor, as though the author is afraid we might miss the point.

Nevertheless, The Hungry Ghosts is an accomplished, resonant novel. The solid characters and diverse events, the Sri Lankan and Torontonian flavours, and the poetic conclusion will leave readers feeling as though they’ve lived a thousand and one stories, and lacked for little.