The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A real whirlwind of a novel, the latest from Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai packs in a lot of emotion, while moving finely over the course of the life of an immigrant, caught between the land he grew up in and the world in which he lives.
The novel starts in Sri Lanka and soon vividly portrays the 1983 conflict between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, leaving the narrator, Shivan, and his family desperate for escape. They immigrate to Canada, but soon find life is not all it could be there, either. The internal struggle of the immigrant is portrayed well, feeling homesick for a place that is no longer home.
In one vivid scene, Shivan walks with his mother to buy groceries on the weekend, a cold fifteen minute walk in suburbia to the local Bridlewood Mall. Who among us cannot relate to the sterile coldness of the impoverished Bridlewood Mall?
Shivan finds refuge in the eclectic Toronto neighbourhood of Queen West and in the city’s burgeoning gay movement. One of his first contacts is a counselor who tells him not to go to the gay village that it’s full of bitter queens with only one thing on their minds, and who then in turn seduces him. Hypocrisy, Canadian style.
Finding his life in Canada intolerable, Shivan travels back to Sri Lanka with devastating consequences that really set the book in motion. From this point on, I couldn’t put it down. As a friend of Shivan’s tells him “You wanted poor old Sri Lanka to love and accept the person you became in Canada. But it cannot.”
These demons haunt Shivan, forcing him to relive old mistakes. The novel centres a lot on reincarnation and cycles of life, and Shivan is living his own cycle, one he will grow to find not all that different from that of his ancestors.
After talking about his struggles with a partner, Shivan talks of his mother:
"I... I don't want you to think my mother is some truly horrid person," I said, wanting to distance myself now from my impulsive confession. "She has come around to accepting who I am."
"No, no, Shivan," he assured me, "she's just human."
This is the message of this book, vividly told. We’re all human, we all have perspectives, we all make mistakes. The book is interwoven with fantastic old Buddhist stories, like the one in the title about the hungry ghosts. Greedy in this life, they are doomed in the next, with big bellies for food but mouths the size of the eye of a needle, cursed to forever be in want.
The message in many of these stories is forgiveness; that we need to forgive others, that we need to forgive ourselves most of all. I was a little disappointed that Shivan’s journey to peace did not come full circle before the end of the book, but perhaps that’s part of life too. That there is no happy ending, or closing of the circle. Rather there’s motions we make to set things right, and the trust that we will get through.
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