Antinomies and Subjectivity in Kevin Jared Hosein’s Hungry Ghosts

June 2023

Kevin Jared Hosein, Hungry Ghosts: A Novel (London: Bloomsbury, 2023); 352 pages; ISBN 978-1526644480 (hardcover)

Writing is about making choices. What story will be told? Where and when will it be set? Who will be involved? What form will the book take? Whatever the case, one of the most important choices a writer makes relates to narration. Will the narration be in the first person? Will it be from an omniscient, all-seeing narrator? Or will some combination of perspectives be deployed? Will different voices and modes of subjectivity be adopted within the same work? And, ever since Madame Bovary, how deeply will the work delve into the lives of the characters involved?

The choices made by Kevin Jared Hosein in relation to narrative voice in his new novel Hungry Ghosts account for the book’s idiosyncratic charge and energy. The third-person narration devised here is a dramatic departure from Hosein’s previous books, The Repenters (2016) and The Beast of Kukuyo (2018), which are narrated in the first person. In a work brimming with a dazzling array of antinomies that speak to the liminal state of Trinidadian society, it is the curdled stew of the uniquely devised narrative voice—in which objective and subjective viewpoints are willfully blurred, in which formal and informal modes of address jostle, and in which old stories crowd the new—that rises to the top more so than any other element (plot, character, setting) to deliver Hosein’s startling worldview.

It is a worldview telegraphed by the book’s intertextuality. The old mythos of “hungry ghosts,” or the unsatiable supernatural beings of Asian culture, gives the novel its central leitmotif, but it is two books by world-famous Caribbean authors that are the prevailing spirits presiding over it: Harold Sonny Ladoo’s 1972 masterpiece No Pain Like This Body and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River from 1979. Hosein’s novel is set in Trinidad “sometime in the 1940s” (1) and centers on the mysterious disappearance of the landowner Dalton Changoor, but it does not work as a crime procedural. This is not a tale of ratiocination in which the reader’s pleasure is meant to be derived primarily by the solving of a riddle. Instead, from the beginning Hosein clearly intends to extend and amplify the tradition of the Caribbean gothic by occupying the same terrain as Ladoo’s story, which is set in 1905. On the opening page, the action in Hosein’s book starts amid rains that “came down so hard the clouds would fall as well” (1), an echo of the opening of Ladoo’s water-soaked book where “clouds were tired in the sky” and “came closer and closer.”1 No Pain Like This Body opens with children trying in vain to catch tadpoles that are “black, black, black like rain clouds,”2 and these tadpoles end up in Hungry Ghosts, dancing on lingams (30) and in ricebags (42). Dogs and scorpions figure in both novels at crucial moments, and the events in both works also open out in scope from the domestic to the communal; there is even a thematic synthesis of the earlier book in the latter, when a mother tells her son, “Your pa cause pain in this life, but that is cause all he know is pain” (240). The closing lines of Hosein’s opening chapter similarly expound an idea of the colonial subject’s body as the site of an endless historical trauma when the narrator states, “There is no other body than the one the gods have paired you with” (6).

These lines also clearly expound on Naipaul’s fatalistic opening sentence from A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”3 In Hungry Ghosts: “Don’t let the dreams fool you. This is your place in this world” (6). What follows is a tale in which hopes of a better life are the undoing of so many of the characters. As now standard in Caribbean fiction, this includes the desire to own a home (the dreams of the protagonist in Naipaul’s classic A House of Mr. Biswas are also a presence here), but it also, more tellingly, extends to the desire to be sexually expressive and to find true love, with Dalton’s wife, Marlee, being fundamentally misunderstood; his employee Hansraj Saroop and Hansraj’s wife, Shweta, being unable to have sex that works for both; young children making disastrous romantic pairings; and families ending up broken by violence, illness, and, ironically, parents’ search for romantic happiness through outside partners. This inability to achieve self-actualization through the body, this remaining in a perpetual state of limbo is, for Hosein, a symbol and by-product of empire. If Caribbean literary antecedents haunt the text, it is because the past haunts the present, he suggests.

The opening chapter makes plain that one of the many “ghosts” this writer is concerned with is the legacy of the British Empire, with its attendant processes of slavery, indentureship, and economic, political, and cultural domination. Describing the Saroop family, the narrator remarks in no uncertain terms, “The three lived 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” (3). A glimpse of the colonial overlord occurs during an encounter with the police in chapter 9, with notions of law and order being closely aligned with the disdainful project of empire. The tortured, liminal state of all the characters and their fates further paint a picture of unbearable realities relating to race, class, belief, education, and power in a conquered society. A person re-inventing themselves as respectable becomes “a ghost roaming the manor” (3). A child in a poor family who dies prematurely is “now a preta” (39), or spirit who must be fed. Latrines in tenements are circled with salt “to ward off ghosts” (62), who turn out to be just people desperate for a private place to couple. An abused wife becomes “not so much human but a ghost that appeared in rooms, shifted things” (192), and a victim of violence becomes someone barely able to speak, “her voice like a ghost” (281).

The living versus the dead—this joins the past versus the present as being among the book’s many antinomies that all, in some way, speak of a people trapped between the poles of contrasting fates. Others include scavenger versus hoarder; prince versus pauper; peace versus war; holy versus unholy; light versus dark; truth versus deception; being asleep versus being awake. The novel’s very opening sets in motion this flow of binaries, with the setting being divided into two by a highway: “On one side, the belief of bush and burlap and sohari and jute and rattan and thatch and tapia. On the other was Bell Village, the dogma of the new world, howling and preaching steel and diesel and rayon and vinyl and gypsum and triple-glazed glass” (3). It is the narration itself, however, that presents the most compelling antinomy of all. On the one hand, Hosein’s speaker is often insanely verbose, with words like “peristaltic” (319), “tatterdemalions” (304), “lucifugous” (295), “abscissa” (278), and “noctilucae” (27) appearing. This verbosity is almost operatic, giving the prose a sense of weight or torque. On the other hand, there is a frequent reliance on a kind of parataxis, with the narrative breaking up into shorter sentences that have been clipped of their subject. An illustrative example: “Krishna was sensitive. Gave time for thought. Took his time with things. Once, he listened to his mother. Not any more” (36). These moments feel casual and conversational, like listening to a storyteller telling a yarn. They contrast sharply with the ornate wordplay that seems like that of a colonial subject trying to impress the master, in the way marginalized people always must prove their bona fides whenever admitted into spaces of privilege. This code-switching removes the sense of a hierarchy between narration and dialogue coming out of the mouths of the characters.

Equally, it is possible to view the vacillation between these modes as a function of the narrative’s close subjectivity in relation to its characters. If the narrator sometimes mirrors fragmented thought, it is because a specific character thinks in a fragmented, impressionistic way. And when the narrative gets verbose, it may well be a function of coming closer to a specific character who also is. For instance, Marlee has re-invented herself using the formal language that would mark her as upper class. In another book, all this might hold true consistently in relation to specific characters. Instead, what Hosein has done is more radical. I believe he has taken subjective elements of all the characters, some universal and some idiosyncratic, and birthed a syncretic mélange of all of them in an enactment of the whirlwind of trauma, the swamp of history. Hans, Shweta, Krishna, Tarak, Marlee—they all think the same way because they are all in the same boiling pot.

It is Hosein’s choice to deploy this unique disruption of systems of subjectivity that accounts for the mesmeric oddness of Hungry Ghosts, an oddness that dismantles hierarchical notions of conventional narrative voice and order within English letters. Here, we have no clear-cut delineation between the “proper” omniscient narrator who speaks one way while the characters, in subordinated, quoted dialogue, speak another. Here, if a character wishes to bend over backward to please or gain approval, there are implications throughout. No one is truly individual because they cannot yet be. Hungry Ghosts is a subversive, anticolonial text, heralding the coming into full power of a remarkable talent.

Andre Bagoo’s latest books are The Undiscovered Country (Peepal Tree, 2020); Narcissus (Broken Sleep Books, 2022); and The Dreaming (Peepal Tree, 2022).

[1] Harold Sonny Ladoo, No Pain Like This Body (1972; repr., Toronto: House of Anansi, 2013), 58, 118.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River (1979; repr., Oxford: Pan Macmillan, 2002), 4.

Related Articles