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Hungry Ghosts

Kevin Jared Hosein 

(Bloomsbury, 2023)

Review by Suzanne Harrington


Hungry Ghosts, Kevin Jared Hosein’s first novel for adults, is set in 1940s Trinidad as the island emerges from colonialism. From the opening scene – four boys cutting themselves to become blood brothers – we are led through a closed, hallucinatory world of wild nature and rigid social structures; a world of poverty, beauty, violence, dignity, desperation, fierce loyalty and catastrophic disloyalty.

 A hungry ghost or preta in Sanskrit, is a supernatural being with a tiny mouth and an inability to swallow, that is always hungry but never satisfied. The novel contains many hungry ghosts, although these are all living beings rather than spirits, all hungry for more than they have, from the most basic needs of shelter and more complex ones around status, fulfilment,and education. All of them are constrained and constricted by cash and class.

 Five Hindu families each live in a leaky room in a dilapidated barrack. One family, Hansraj, Shweta and their teenage son Krishna, would like to move to Bell, a nearby Christian village. Hans works on the estate of Dalton Changoor, a rich man with a violent past – we never quite get the straight of it – and Dalton’s trophy wife Marlee, herself an escapee of grinding poverty who has mutated, Pygmalion-like, to become lady of the manor. She drinks and dances alone, her husband frequently absent.

 The story appears to hinge on Dalton’s sudden disappearance, and Marlee’s resulting vulnerability to intruders. She offers Hans a substantial payment to move in temporarily as a nightwatchman; with the money, he will be able to move his family out of the barracks, to the village. His wife Shweta is unsure; she is desperate to move, yet the idea of her husband staying overnight on a rich woman’s estate fills her with foreboding. Nothing goes to plan.

 Hungry Ghosts is a tragedy, wrapped in a love letter to the island’s beauty. Hosein’s prose glows as he describes the island’s food, light, scents, colours and his language is lyrical, uncommon. A pond has an ‘eutrophic patina’; rice fields form a ‘dark abscissa’; a path is ‘lucifugous.’ He spent a decade as a biology teacher, and it shows, as does his love for Cormac McCarthy.

 Terrible backstories come to light and terrible things happen. Only one character – a minor one – escapes the inevitability of his lot. There are dead babies, savage bullies, sexual violence, physical violence, and a whole pile of dead dogs; you need a strong stomach in places. It is a story woven of threads that never come together too tightly, but linger in the mind, the characters hamstrung by their own hungers and the ceaseless struggle of being alive in such an unyielding time and place. Jean Rhys writes evocatively of lush Caribbean life; Hosein writes about it from the perspective of the have-nots, the ones scrabbling around in a harsh paradise. 

 Hungry Ghosts has literary prize-winner written all over it, and deservedly so. Hosein has captured a point in Trinidadian history, and crystallised it, sharp and glittering, yet dreamlike and just out of reach. It is a work of ethereal beauty, light and vivid. It is also harrowing, devastating, and full of cruel injustice.