Toronto Book Awards: The Hungry Ghosts

Selvadurai, Shyam (BL)Our series of Toronto Book Awards reviews concludes today. Kim MacMullen has reviewed each of the finalists for this year’s Toronto Book Awards, which will be awarded on October 16, 2014.

Today Kim reviews The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai (Doubleday Canada). Shyam will be reading at the The Word On The Street on September 21st, at 12:00 PM and again at 4:30 PM at the Toronto Book Awards Tent.


Set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war, Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts tells the story of Shivan Rassiah, the son of a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother, and his family’s struggles with the war and each other. After his father’s death, Shivan and his family have no choice but to move in with his wealthy, shrewd, and unforgiving grandmother, who had disowned Shivan’s mother years ago for various perceived betrayals. Shivan quickly becomes his Aachi’s favoured grandchild, and he grows up under her strict moral tutelage, knowing that his devotion is the only thing keeping his mother and sister under Aachi’s roof—a heavy burden for a six-year-old boy. As Shivan grows into an astute, emotional young man and begins to recognize his homosexuality, he realizes that his family must leave Sri Lanka if he is to live an open life and if they are to escape the violence in their country and Aachi’s domineering grasp, especially now that Shivan is being groomed to inherit and operate her many rental properties. He convinces his mother and sister to leave Sri Lanka for Canada, where they purchase a house (albeit, with Aachi’s money) and begin their new life in Scarborough, alight with hope and excitement at the prospect of total freedom.

Their new life proves to be a difficult one, though, filled with racism, loneliness, isolation, betrayals, and regrets, leaving all Book Cover_The Hungry Ghoststhree of them feeling stuck between a country to which they can’t return and another that feels as though it will never be home. Shivan faces racism when trying to navigate Toronto’s gay community, along with heartbreaking loneliness when he fails to make friends at university, and eventually he returns to Sri Lanka to visit his Aachi after she falls ill. This trip triggers a horrifying series of events that wounds Shivan to his core, destroying his relationship with his grandmother and creating even more discord in his family. The family’s love is palpable and referenced often through the story, but their incendiary reactions and overwhelming desire to punish others for their perceived slights, including Aachi’s deplorable actions upon learning of Shivan’s homosexuality, impede any real intimacy and drives them apart. Selvadurai’s beautiful, textured writing navigates the difficult and often violent subject matter of the book deftly and honestly, and by the end the reader cares for Shivan and his family (even Aachi) while simultaneously despairing at some of their poorer choices and more rash outbursts.

One by one, beginning with Shivan’s mother, they eventually begin to put aside their anger and open the door to forgiveness, offering a redemptive ending wrapped in simultaneous heartbreak. Aachi is the final holdout, and we are left guessing as to whether she can accept Shivan’s personal sacrifice and release her peréthayas, the titular hungry ghosts that can only be freed by the kind deeds of their ancestors, before her next life begins—hopefully with no insatiable spectres to haunt her new days.

Kim MacMullen is a copywriter from Barrie, ON. She has a degree in English Literature from Laurentian University, and, after spending two years in Toronto, she now lives in Barrie with her husband and their substantial collections of books, sports memorabilia, and video games.


CONTEST BANNERWhat was the title of Shyam Selvadurai’s first novel?  Check out our festival program, and send the answer to toronto@thewordonthestreet.ca to be entered in a draw to win a prize pack of all the shortlisted Toronto Book Awards books,signed by the authors!

Contest closes September 19, 2014.

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