Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

This is the first book I've read by Selvadurai but I will definitely look into others.  If this book is any indication, he has an engaging descriptive style and excels at developing complex and fascinating characters.  The novel centres on Shivan, a Canadian immigrant from Sri Lanka who is now in his early thirties.  He is preparing to return to his place of birth to visit his grandmother who is dying.  The book seamlessly moves from past to present as we learn about Shivan's difficult childhood, particularly after he and his sister and widowed mother move into his grandmother's home.  His Sinhalese mother had been estranged from her mother since marrying a Tamil man.  The grandmother takes the family in, but only at Shivan's expense.  His grandmother took a liking to him and begins grooming him to take over her property management business.  From a young age he is exposed to her crooked dealings, her main "thug" and her aggressive and stingy nature.

But we also eventually learn of the hard past that led to his grandmother's behaviour.  She is oddly both manipulative and cruel, and pathetic or even sympathetic.  Just after high school Shivan's family leaves the grandmother behind and immigrates to Canada.  There they are faced with poverty, his mother's depression and Shivan's coming to terms with being gay.  After a few years of struggling to fit in he returns for a short visit to Sri Lanka - which is lengthened when he falls in love with an old school friend.  But when his grandmother finds out he is gay she sets in motion a terrible sequence of events from which Shivan has yet to recover though he returns to Canada, sets out on his own to Vancouver, finds a respectable job and falls in love again.

We are left hoping, but not confident, that his next visit to his grandmother will bring the closure he needs to allow him to move on.

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