Hungry Ghosts: A Novel
- By Kevin Jared Hosein
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
- February 24, 2023
A mystery unfurls in the verdant, troubled Caribbean of the 1940s.
It’s always a joy to read a book that teaches you something about a period of history you know little about — in this case, Trinidad and Tobago “in the dusky rural past of the 1940s.” Kevin Jared Hosein’s Hungry Ghosts illuminates this time and place masterfully, with a heavy side of lush description and incisive commentary on what it means to be human in difficult circumstances.
On the night Dalton Changoor “vanished into thin air,” “the music was still playing,” reports Hosein at the opening of the novel. Equally disturbing: One of Dalton’s beloved German shepherds is left leashed to a stake in the cherry orchard (Marlee, Dalton’s wife, has declined to brave a fierce storm to untie it), where he slips down an embankment and drowns in the swollen river:
“The river had indeed widened, the soil scarred with muddy rills…The attached leash, taut, led downward into the still-rumbling river. She took slow steps until she came to the edge, where she could see the dog attached to the other end. A bloated ball of sinew and fur.”
Later, readers may look back on this inauspicious moment as the high point of the book. A short distance away from the Changoors’ orchard but in a world apart, a few families eke out hardscrabble existences in a sugarcane estate barrack:
“These barracks 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. This particular barrack sat by its lonesome, raw and jagged as a yanked tooth in the paragrass-spangled stretch of meadow, beyond the canefield, beyond the rice paddies, the village proper and the sugar mill — in a corner where God had to squint to see.”
Near the river that runs along the barrack, a boy named Krishna and three friends make a blood oath to protect one another:
“They passed around a boning knife, making clean cuts across their palms. The blood bubbled to the surface like their veins were boiling. They let the blood drip into a stolen bottle of cow’s milk. They drank, passing the bottle around until all was gone. Then they hugged each other, a minute at a time, holding on tight as if the world were ending.”
Dalton’s disappearance is the unresolved event around which the narrative revolves. Marlee asks Krishna’s father, Hans, to spend nights with her under the guise of being afraid to stay alone; in fact, she has been infatuated with him for some time. “She had no person she considered to be a real friend and, in Hans, sensed something kindred,” writes Hosein. “Something beyond lifestyle and customs.”
Hans agrees to the arrangement with little fuss; his wife has been badgering him to raise enough money for the family to move out of the barrack, and he believes the inconvenience of staying with Marlee will be worth the payday. Yet despite having thus far been a loyal spouse, he quickly begins crossing lines in the Changoor household, with Marlee more than willing to accommodate him.
As his father lives high on the hog in Dalton’s stead, Krishna endures a series of troubling incidents in the barrack: A gang of bullies tries to drown the communal dog; the girl he likes is mistreated by townies; and his mother contracts a tetanus infection that threatens her life. Weeks, then months, pass with Hans becoming increasingly ensconced at Marlee’s side; he doesn’t even visit his wife in the hospital.
One evening, after escaping from some tormentors, Krishna makes his way to the Changoor house, hoping to find his father. “Perhaps it was time to admit the truth now,” he muses. “That he needed his father more than ever.” The boy no longer sees his own home as a safe place:
“He thought of heading back, but the barrack could not protect him. Neither the building nor the status of it. His mother, as much as she provided for him, was powerless.”
Krishna’s decision, made in innocence, to seek out his father leads to the novel’s climax — a moment I won’t reveal here. Readers will not be disappointed in it, however. While Hungry Ghosts ultimately doesn’t answer all the questions it raises, it reminds us of the importance of asking them in the first place.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.