Review: The Hungry Ghosts – Shyam Selvadurai

The Hungry Ghosts
Book cover: A figure in a sarong stands in the G of ‘Ghosts’

In Buddhist myth, the dead may be reborn as “hungry ghosts”—spirits with stomach so large they can never be full—if they have desired too much during their lives. It is the duty of the living relatives to free those doomed to this fate by doing kind deeds and creating good karma. In Shyam Selvadurai’s sweeping new novel, his first in more than a decade, he creates an unforgettable ghost, a powerful Sri Lankan matriarch whose wily ways, insatiable longing for land, houses, money and control, and tragic blindness to the human needs of those around her parallels the volatile political situation of her war-torn country.

The novel centres around Shivan Rassiah, the beloved grandson, who is of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage, and who also—to his grandmother’s dismay—grows from beautiful boy to striking gay man. As the novel opens in the present day, Shivan, now living in Canada, is preparing to travel back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to rescue his elderly and ailing grandmother, to remove her from the home—now fallen into disrepair—that is her pride, and bring her to Toronto to live our her final days. But throughout the night and into the early morning hours of his departure, Shivan grapples with his own insatiable hunger and is haunted by unrelenting ghosts of his own creation.

The Hungry Ghosts is a beautifully written, dazzling story of family, wealth and the long reach of the past. It shows how racial, political and sexual differences can tear apart both a country and the human heart—not just once, but many times, until the ghosts are fed and freed.

I was very moved by Funny Boy, however due to some issues I couldn’t recommend it. Here’s my review. However, Shyam Selvadurai’s writing is so beautiful and I wanted to read another book of his, as I hoped that I would be able to recommend it. This is why I chose to read The Hungry Ghosts. It fit into the Asian Lit Bingo challenge as well.

This is #ownvoices for Sinhalese + Tamil and gay representation.

I am so happy that this book lived up to my expectations. I’m going to already preface the review by saying it’s beautiful, just in case some of you don’t read the whole review.

The characters were all so alive, they were breathing, living people. I felt like they weren’t fictional at all, and I was very invested in Shivan’s (MC) life and also in his mother’s and sister’s lives. Shivan and his grandmother have a very intricate and elaborate relationship, which is influenced by cultural and family values, as well as the fact that Shivan is multiracial (Sinhalese-Tamil) and gay.

Shyam Selvadurai writes in such a way that you are transported into a fictional place but still feel like the events are not fictional at all. The story is gripping. It was an emotional journey and my feelings were all over the place. It’s a very realistic book that will give you different perspectives into the conflicts that shaped Sri Lanka into the country it is today and how historical events impacted the lives of various people.

There are several instances where the text illustrates the necessity for intersectionality. For example, brown gay men feeling like they don’t belong in gay circles, and brown women feeling like they don’t belong in feminist circles.

I enjoyed reading the retellings of Buddhist stories. I hadn’t read them before, so this was a lovely addition to my reading experience.

There are colorist and ableist microaggressions, which are not called out in the text. The word ‘Negroid’ is used to describe the hair structure of a Sri Lankan person.

Shyam Selvadurai’s novels are sad. They’re difficult to read. However, they are beautiful and heart-wrenching stories that portray realistic situations and people’s reactions to these events.

The Hungry Ghosts has some minor microagressions. Nevertheless, I still recommend this novel as it was a great book.

Trigger warnings: ableism, colorism, war, death, murder.

3 stars

Have you read The Hungry Ghosts? Have you read other books by Shyam Selvadurai?

6 thoughts on “Review: The Hungry Ghosts – Shyam Selvadurai

  1. I havent read anything from him yet, and it is always a struggle to read books that are a pleasure to read but the story messes you up emotionally. My husband usually asks “why do you read them if you know you are gonna end up like this?” me: *between sobs* I dont know 😢


  2. How interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with Buddhist characters or themes. I notice this one also has 3 stars, is that mainly from the microaggressions or are there other issues similar to Funny Boy?


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