Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Hungry Ghosts, by Kevin Jared Hosein

"Moths see light and fly to it... Always searching for the border between deep darkness and the billows of the moon.  The moonlight to them is hope. But to a moth, there are many things that resemble moonlight.  It is that hope that turns on them and gets them killed."

Ecco, 2023
327 pp


Trinidad is one of our favorite Caribbean island destinations so when I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it.  I also love Caribbean literature and I was not at all disappointed with this novel --  Hungry Ghosts is a dark yet phenomenal story and Trinidadian author Kevin Jared Hosein is a phenomenal writer.  

The family at the center of this story lives in a small space known as "the Barrack."   These structures, as we are told, were "sugarcane estate barrack(s)," and were 
"scattered like half-buried bones across the plain, strewn from their colonial corpse. In their marrow, the ghosts of the indentured. And the offspring of those ghosts."
  It's the 1940s, and in the rural countryside of Trinidad, the Saroop family, Hansraj (Hans), Shweta and their son Krishna,  share the five-room, "tangle of wood and iron" barrack with four other families,  each occupying a 10x10 foot room. Although there are partitions between the rooms, they do not allow for any sort of privacy; these impoverished families live with no running water, dress in clothes made of old flour sacks, and cook outside in a "communal yard," also the place for "drinking and fighting."    Shweta is haunted by the loss of her baby girl Hema, about whom Hans will never speak and who has become, as one of the older women in the barrack revealed to Shweta,  a "preta -- a hungry ghost" whose insatiable hunger must be appeased, as well as that of the other ghosts Hema brings with her.   Shweta has a hunger as well: she dreams of getting out of the Barrack, escaping this "fossil embedded in quicksand" and buying a plot of land in Bell Village, 
"the dogma of a new world, howling and preaching steel and diesel and rayon and vinyl and gypsum and triple-glazed glass,"
in hopes of securing for her family a better quality of life.  The Barrack and its inhabitants fall at the lower echelon of a carefully-maintained social and class structure; while Krishna is the only barrack child enrolled at the school (which he despises) in Bell Village, the village children never let him forget where he lives or his barrack upbringing.  Although there are other Hindus who attend the school, some are "Hindu at home but Presbyterian at school," at a time when identifying as Christian offered the promise of better opportunities.  Towering over all of these people are the Changoors, Dalton and Marlee, who live uphill at Changoor Farm.  Wealthy and powerful, no one really knows how Dalton came to have so much money, and no one really knows Marlee, who generally stays inside the walls of the house.  She has no real friends and rarely interacts with people on the outside. Things change though when Dalton disappears with no warning, leaving Marlee a "cryptic note" on the kitchen table that says very little.  She is now alone on the farm with the three hired workers (who by Dalton's orders were to "never set foot inside his house")  one of which is Hans Saroop.   Marlee makes up stories about Dalton's absence, reassuring the farmhands that he will be back, but when she receives a ransom note attached to a dead rat demanding money, she offers Hans a high-paying job staying at the farm as a guard until Dalton's return.  Hans knows that with the money that Marlee is willing to pay he can make a down payment on the patch of land in Bell Village and improve his family's life; what he doesn't know is that his decision will launch a tidal wave of completely unforeseen consequences.  Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, there are any number of people in this novel whose choices will have a major impact  not only on their own lives but those of others as well.  

While Hans believes in that "flicker of a daydream" that offers the the promise of escape, what he doesn't understand is just how quickly a dream can turn into a nightmare, especially as he tries to keep his feet planted in two different worlds in a system that is so entrenched.    He doesn't know what others know, that he's "floatin' through maya ...Mistaking dreams for the real world."  This notion of a better world as illusion is prevalent throughout this novel -- so much so that at one point somebody notes that  
"Moths see light and fly to it... Always searching for the border between deep darkness and the billows of the moon.  The moonlight to them is hope. But to a moth, there are many things that resemble moonlight.  It is that hope that turns on them and gets them killed."

Eventually it becomes very clear that Hema is not the only ghost that haunts these people; there are many others with their own unfulfilled and unfulfillable appetites that ultimately lead them into despair.  In the bigger scheme of things though, it's the ghosts of Trinidad's colonial past that are the most haunting of all.   "Behold hell" indeed.   

Once again, just a barebones look at a fine novel; if I wasn't so behind lifewise I could talk about this book forever.   I absolutely loved Hungry Ghosts mainly because of the author's original approach in exploring the history of his homeland and his heritage.  While the novel is often brutally violent and emotionally difficult to read, the author's prose is just beautiful, offering readers the sensation that they are there in that time as a witness to a slice of Trinidad's past.  Definitely highly recommended -- I will read whatever this author has to offer in the future. 

Just wow.