How do systems of oppression shape intimate social relations? In his debut novel Hungry Ghosts, Kevin Jared Hosein sets out to answer this question. Hosein traces how structural inequality fractures the Saroops, a small family living in abject poverty in 1930s Trinidad. Hans Saroop, his wife Shweta, and their thirteen-year-old son Krishna are Hindu Indo-Trindadians who come from a rural communal slum called “the barracks.” They aspire to live in Bell, a nearby Christian village, where residents enjoy the security of a middle-class life. However, the Saroops’ social class and religion bar them from buying property in Bell, thus consigning the family to an unbearable life of disease and thankless hard labor.
That is, until an unexpected job opportunity brings them away from their life of destitution. Hans works as a farmhand for Dalton Changoor, a mystery man who leads a life of luxury on a hill above Bell Village. When Dalton goes missing, his beautiful and equally mysterious wife Marlee asks Hans to move in with her to guard the mansion. This transgression of class boundaries sets the stage for Hosein’s rumination on intimacy and oppression in which the Saroops and the Changoors are ensnared in a story of betrayal, trauma, and longing.
Meanwhile, Hans and Shweta are haunted by their daughter, who died as a baby due to the substandard living conditions in the barracks. The couple never speak of their dead child, the “hungry ghost” of the book’s title. In the midst of this unspoken grief, Shweta not only berates Hans for failing to secure the family’s social advancement; she is also traumatized by the death. Whenever the couple begin to have sex, the “feeling of pleasured giddiness” deteriorates into writhing flesh: “Every muscle jittered. Jaw locked up. Throat constricted, chafing on itself, pain like teeth was sprouting along the gullet.” While Shweta chastises her husband, she also struggles with her insecurities as a wife. Here, Hosein draws out the insidious ways poverty affects the psyche and intrudes on our personal lives.
Worst of all, the Saroops cannot even fall apart in private. Hosein does not lose sight of the fact that his main characters live in a shack where whole families are assigned to a single room. Readers will become familiar with the claustrophobic but sincere barracks community whose occupants cook, grieve, and dream of a better life together. We meet Rookmin, a traditionalist healer who knows of Hans and Shweta’s tormenting past; Mandeep, Hans’s alcoholic and abusive brother, who lives next door; and his son Tarak, Krishna’s best friend. Krishna dreams of marrying his crush, Lata, but her only hope of escape from the barracks is marriage to a boy from Bell. Each carefully wrought detail of the barrack residents’ lives is a thread Hosein twists and pulls taut in order to heighten the story’s intensity. During one particularly vicious spat between Hans and Shweta, Hosein orchestrates the hectic noises of the barrack into a crescendo, until one of the spouses crosses a line—when, suddenly, their neighbors become conspicuously (and intrusively) silent.
Hosein’s attention to detail extends beyond the barracks into other sites of institutional harm: schools, jailhouses, brothels. He is alert to the US occupation of Trinidad and the myriad interconnected backstories of his characters. All the while, his harsh depiction of rural Trinidad is enrobed in sumptuous prose: the darkness of night is “like God had snuffed out a candle over the world”; the land hums with “scarlet ribbon[s] of ibises flocking to the mangroves.” Hosein immerses us in early-twentieth-century island life, describing in minute detail the aromas of baigan choka roasting in a pan, the Art Deco and Mughal decor of the lonely Changoor mansion, and the tadpoles swimming in ankle-high water in the barracks after a night of heavy rains.
Although Hosein’s world building is sensuous and intricate, the slow pacing may deter some readers. The catalyst of the novel is Hans moving into the Changoor house, but this development does not take place until halfway through the book. In the meantime, Hosein patiently lays out the pieces of his sprawling narrative, eventually clicking the moving parts into place for a devastatingly poignant ending.
Hungry Ghosts is, at its core, a stirring family drama marked by betrayal. Hosein’s tender characterization of each character’s emotions, desires, and flaws makes for an absorbing read on its own, but his astute portrayal of class, religion and culture is what makes Hungry Ghosts remarkable. While its plot sometimes gets lost amid all the fine detail, Hungry Ghosts is a deeply intimate vignette of life in Trinidad in the 1930s.