Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein review — cursed families and killer cherries

This shimmering slice of Trinidadian gothic deserves to be a Booker contender.

A review by Claire Allfree for London’s Times.

On one level Kevin Jared Hosein’s novel, set in 1940s rural Trinidad, can be summarised as a couple of semi-related, straightforward incidents. A poor man strikes up a friendship with a wealthier woman after her husband vanishes. Meanwhile, a violent rivalry develops between teenager Krishna and some boys from the local village. The bullying starts at school, spills over into the neighbouring fields and at one point involves the police.

Yet what luscious, troubling, shimmering cloth Hosein has spun from such threads. Heaving with uneasy symbolism, Hungry Ghosts reads like a Greek tragedy relocated to a gothic Caribbean setting worthy of Jean Rhys — a story of cursed families and inherited vengeance, inexplicable horrors and impossible dreams and a country haunted, as Hosein reminds us, by the ghosts of the indentured.

Hungry Ghosts is about two households. Krishna Saroop lives with his parents and four other families in a ramshackle, five-room colonial-era barrack house. The other household is that of the Changoors, who employ Krishna’s father, Hans, to work on their estate. But Dalton Changoor disappears, leaving behind only a note and his beloved dog, tied to a tree and now dead after the river rose in the night.

His wife, Marlee, is fearful and anxious, her paranoia exacerbated by a ransom note delivered in a box containing the body of a freshly killed rat, and the discovery of another dog, poisoned possibly by cherries from the orchard. She hires Hans as a night watchman on a salary that at last allows his wife, Shweta, to dream of putting a down payment on a plot of land. But, as a friend of Hans reminds him, “a night shift usually spells trouble for a family in a barrack”.

Hosein writes against any imperial notions of his native country as some sort of exotic paradise: this is not a Trinidad likely to be sanctioned by any tourist board. His characters are fabulously well detailed, the sort with whom the reader feels instantly acquainted, as is the fabric of their lives; the barrack women agree not to gossip while cooking to “maintain the mental illusion that this place was each wholly theirs” — although privacy is so scarce that one couple prefer to have sex in the latrine.

They live, too, in the shadow of their country’s colonial past. As an orphaned teenager Marlee worked as a maid in a brothel frequented by American sailors, and on marrying Dalton reinvented herself in the fantasised image of an all-American wife. At school Krishna is forced to learn Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

Yet while doomy motifs — dead children, sickness, adolescent blood pacts sworn in the name of the corbeau, a vulture — abound, they do so in ways that feel more suggestive than explicit. As the plot round Dalton thickens and the violence between the boys intensifies, Hosein teases the reader with what, if anything, might be going on. Are the various incidents we witness determined by the great arc of history, fate, a curse or human design, or can they be explained away as accidental? Can sons live free of their fathers’ actions? Is the tragedy that unfolds the inevitable result of grinding poverty or just a quirk of fate? And can a country ever escape the injuries of its past?

Hosein gives us no easy answers in this sumptuous, brilliantly written novel. An early contender for the Booker? I wouldn’t bet against it.

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