Shyam Selvadurai’s new novel, The Hungry Ghosts(Doubleday Canada, 2013), like his impressive first novel, Funny Boy, and like the author’s life, is set in Sri Lanka and Canada. Both stories are utterly dependant on the assumption that the author has accurately portrayed Sri Lankan culture and the tragic political situation that has beset the country. There is no reason to doubt the author’s authority in this regard. His multi-sensory descriptions are too precise and his notes of particular events on specific dates and addresses need not be a matter of conjecture since it is hard to imagine how they would skew the plot even if, as must happen in novels, some of them are fictitious.
The Hungry Ghosts is an ambitious cross-cultural undertaking. The structure of the novel is built on the final day before the hero is to return to Sri Lanka to accompany his grandmother back to Canada so his mother can take care of her as her health declines. Every step on that last day triggers flash-backs to the hero’s life in Canada as an immigrant, his earlier life in Sri Lanka plagued with tragedy he needs to put behind him, and Buddhist morality and ghost stories, which eventually are the key to why the novel must end as it does. It is indicative of Shyam’s development as a novelist that the conclusion cannot be guessed until the very last page.
It is long before the last page, not long after the first page in fact, that something seems not quite right. A reader, at least this reader, is coaxed to feel this will clear up. But in this case it is not all cleared up. One continues to wonder how the hero can continue to be so spiritually dysfunctional. Shyam tries to have us believe ghosts are behind this. Without the influences of an untold karmic past and the influence of ghosts the only explanation for the hero’s behavior is that he is irrational or perhaps depressed. Shyamgives us plenty of fuel for the depression theory. That’s what made me initially wary of it. I was not wrong to be suspicious. It was the ghosts, in this case supposedly manifested as unresolved conflicts, that had to be dealt with, that is they needed to be resolved. There are no ghosts after all. That was a false lead.
A Canadian readership wouldn’t have gone for it anyhow.
But then we are thrown back on the conclusion that it all has to do with the unresolved issues the hero has with, well, everybody. The big one is with his grandmother. And that is where the novel, in my opinion, does not fly. I would be wrong to say much more and spoil the mystery. But I will say this: I do not think the story is realistic; it never works to try to solve one conflict by creating two others. No, no. The real dynamic is not conflict resolution. But without the ghosts there is no conclusion what it is that sets the hero off.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.