ACCORDING to Buddhist myth, the dead are reborn as "hungry ghosts" -- spirits with stomachs so huge they are never full -- if they have desired too much during their lives.
In his first novel in more than a decade, Toronto literary writer Shyam Selvadurai creates a memorable ghost, a fierce matriarch, whose longing for power and property blinds her to the needs of both her family and her country, Sri Lanka.
This is the fourth book from Sri Lankan-born Selvadurai and his first novel since 1998's Cinnamon Gardens He is still best known for his 1994 debut, the Giller Prize-nominated short-story collection Funny Boy.
In The Hungry Ghosts, the central character, Shivan, looks back at his struggle to determine his own fate notwithstanding his grandmother's ongoing need to control it.
When we meet his "daya," we learn that she, unlike other Sri Lankan women, does not carry a purse. "My grandmother was a woman who had other people carry things for her," says Shivan, in a nifty bit of foreshadowing.
The novel is against the backdrop of the seven-year-long conflict that erupted in 1983 between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority, where Shivan soon realizes that he is his grandmother's chosen one.
This proves both a blessing and a curse. While she showers the young man with gifts, her ongoing favouritism makes his sister incredibly jealous, as Shivan is being mentored to take care of his grandmother's growing list of properties.
When Shivan becomes an adult, he begins a romance with his old high school crush, Mili, and the battle turns increasingly nasty. In the showdown to decide who will ultimately win the young man's affection, it is revealed how bloodthirsty his grandmother is.
This young romance, like something out of an Edmund White novel, is beautifully and powerfully imagined, as the protagonist realizes all of his fantasies with this high school friend. Selvadurai's depiction of Shivan and Mili's fledgling romance provides clear evidence that gay love is no different than straight love.
Calling to mind the work of Indo-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Selvadurai does an excellent job contrasting Sri Lanka and Canada. On his native island, he sees "people at trestle tables with banana leaves piled with idli, rhosai, or string hoppers, onto which bare-chested little boys in soiled shorts dolloped soupy sambar out of metal buckets." But "the Coca-Cola, the KFC, the billboards, the white shag carpet" greet him upon his family's arrival in Canada.
The story loses some steam as it enters its second half. As Shivan puts more distance between himself and his grandmother, the narrative suffers from her absence. She has developed into an archetypical villain.
In this section Shivan lives in Vancouver with a new boyfriend, Michael, who is not as well drawn as Mili, who sometimes appears to be little more than a convenient foil for Shivan's problems.
The overall theme of The Hungry Ghosts is how people's pasts haunt them. "Like a leopard stalking its prey through tall grass, a man's past life pursues him, waiting for the right moment to pounce," writes Selvadurai, quoting one of his grandmother's many Buddhist tales.
Some ghosts do not go away until they are assuaged. Shivan's grandmother is such a ghost. Selvadurai suggests that karma cannot be altered and that one cannot use vengeance to cleanse a past wrong. You'll either pay in this life or in the next one.
Greg Klassen is a Winnipeg writer, publicist and arts marketer.