Book Review: The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

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Book Review:

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

hungry ghosts


Category: Fiction

Author: Shyam Selvadurai

Format: Hardcover, 378 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

ISBN: 978-0-385-67066-1

Pub Date: April 2, 2013


Summary from publisher:

In Buddhist myth, the dead may be reborn as “hungry ghosts”-spirits with stomach so large they can never be full-if they have desired too much during their lives. It is the duty of the living relatives to free those doomed to this fate by doing kind deeds and creating good karma. In Shyam Selvadurai’s sweeping new novel, his first in more than a decade, he creates an unforgettable ghost, a powerful Sri Lankan matriarch whose wily ways, insatiable longing for land, houses, money and control, and tragic blindness to the human needs of those around her parallels the volatile political situation of her war-torn country.

The novel centres around Shivan Rassiah, the beloved grandson, who is of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage, and who also-to his grandmother’s dismay-grows from beautiful boy to striking gay man. As the novel opens in the present day, Shivan, now living in Canada, is preparing to travel back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to rescue his elderly and ailing grandmother, to remove her from the home-now fallen into disrepair-that is her pride, and bring her to Toronto to live our her final days. But throughout the night and into the early morning hours of his departure, Shivan grapples with his own insatiable hunger and is haunted by unrelenting ghosts of his own creation.

The Hungry Ghosts is a beautifully written, dazzling story of family, wealth and the long reach of the past. It shows how racial, political and sexual differences can tear apart both a country and the human heart-not just once, but many times, until the ghosts are fed and freed.


Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai is an exquisitely rich story about Shivan Rassiah, a young boy born from poverty and the weight of a burdened past that originally stems from an abrasive grandmother that poisons her lineage to create a wilful and eventually rebellious daughter—and the fate of her belief in her own terrible karma.

Amidst the turmoil of a divided Sri Lanka where the tensions between the Tamils and Sinhalese people are a vivid and violent backdrop to the tensions between Shivan’s estranged grandmother and mother and the sides he is forced to choose from in order for his family to survive—Shivan also grows, discovers, and explores his own sexuality as a gay man and battles against the intolerance of his homosexuality by his Sri Lankan culture and community.

Between his grandmother’s controlling dominance and astute ambition for power and money; his mother’s depression and devastation at the failure of a western country, Canada, whose expectations she held towards were far too high in estimation compared to her real immigrant experience; and his sister’s radical extremism in feminist theory and racial equality—Shivan is often a victim of emotional liminality and displacement, marginalized in his culture and experience not only by being both Tamil and Sinhalese, but more importantly a Sri Lankan-born boy who immigrates to Toronto, Canada as a refugee and eventually becomes a westernized Torontonian and later, a Vancouver resident, open and active in the LGBT community.

The richness in this novel is found in the author’s ability to write with an eloquence and ease that give his characters resounding depth, authenticity, and a vulnerability, which readers can eagerly connect to and appreciate.

And the emotional landscape of the novel’s characters are not static, nor linear, but like life, mimic the fluctuation of people who change their minds over time and over a number of experiences.

The cultural translations of Buddhists stories also enrich the novel in metaphor and Sri Lankan culture, as well as intensify the substance of the novel’s characters.

But, the novel is not just entirely character-driven. The plot, too, is rich as it is turbulent and engaging. The capacity in which characters can love is just as passionate as their ability to hate and condemn, which drive them to illogical and unthinkable acts of cruelty.

The plot, filled with the torment of conflict and anguish, create an emotionally charged and gripping tale that will move readers to empathy and reflection about the importance of resisting exclusivity, answering the issues of cultural displacement, and advocating racial and gender equality, while defining the ideas of love and home.

Overall, The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai is a beautifully written book, full of substance and dichotomy, tenderness and heartache, tension and cruelty—a book that is so gloriously good, I couldn’t put it down—and still mourn the loss I feel in turning its very last pages.

A book like this is one is one in which you befriend its fictional characters in your reading and then miss them severely, feeling a loss at having to accept that though the story does not end, the book itself, has to. The Hungry Ghosts by this gifted and mature writer will inevitably leave its readers hungering for more.


Characters:  5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

Plot: 5 stars


Zara’s Rating

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 A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Doubleday Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.


About the Author:

shyam selvadurai

From the Shyam Selvadurai Official Website.


Shyam Selvadurai was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1965. He  came to Canada  with his family at the age of nineteen. He has studied creative writing and  theatre and has a BFA from York   University, as well as an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.

Funny Boy, his first novel, was published to acclaim in 1994 and won the WH Smith/Books  in Canada First Novel Award and in the US the Lambda Literary Award. It was also named a Notable Book by the American Library Association, and was translated into 8 languages.

His second novel, Cinnamon Gardens, was published in Canada, the  UK, the US and translated into 9 languages. It was shortlisted for Canada’s Trillium Award, as well as  the Aloa Literary Award in Denmark  and the Premio Internazionale Riccardo Bacchelli in Italy.

Shyam is the  editor of an anthology, Story-Wallah: A  Celebration of South Asian Fiction, published in Canada and the US, and his  novel for young adults, Swimming in the  Monsoon Sea, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and is the  winner of the Lambda Literary Award in the US, the Canadian Library  Association Book of the Year Award and Silver Winner in the Young Adult  Category of ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award.

His articles have  appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Time Magazine, Toronto Life, Walrus Magazine, Enroute Magazine, The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. He served as Festival Curator for the Galle Literary Festival for  2 years. His fourth novel, The Hungry  Ghosts, was  published   April 2, 2013 in Canada, India and  Sri Lanka.

– From the Shyam Selvadurai Official Website



Shyam Selvadurai’s Official Website

Connect with Shyam on Facebook


Have you ever faced cultural displacement before? Where and how?

What unfulfilled desire do you “hunger” for the most?

Have you read Shyam Selvadurai’s book, “The Hungry Ghosts” yet? If so, what did you think of it?


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