Passage, for which Kevin Jared Hosein won the 2018 Commonwealth short story prize, tells the tale of a middle-aged urban Trinidadian who becomes fixated on a “forest family” he chances upon while hiking. At its heart is the clash between the mediated reality of modernity – the selfie sticks brandished by tourists, the iPads the narrator’s children barricade themselves behind – and the meaning and value of the lives of those who have rejected such apparent progress.
Hungry Ghosts expands on this theme of histories and cultures at an impasse. Set in the 1940s, as American destroyers arrive in Trinidad’s diminutive harbours and naval bases displace village communities, it reaches into the country’s past as a much-trafficked colonial possession and hints at the complications that might accompany its journey towards a still-distant independence. High on the list of these complications is the treatment of the island’s marginalised Hindu population, whose rights are curtailed in law. In a scene near the beginning of the book, we witness 13-year-old Krishna railing at a shopkeeper who will not let him enter, while his father, Hans, enjoins his son not to cause trouble.
Hansraj Saroop, his wife, Shweta, and Krishna live in “the barrack”, a dilapidated, leaking and cramped building they share with several other families. Shweta in particular dreams of escaping, urging Hans to forge ahead with attempts to secure a lot in nearby Bell village. It’s partly the imperative to earn more money that leads Hans to agree to act as a nightwatchman for the wealthy Marlee Changoor, whose husband, Dalton, has inexplicably disappeared, but it’s also because he finds himself attracted to her, to the beauty and ease of her surroundings and, one suspects, to the possibility of stepping out of his constrained and challenging life.
These are the bare bones of the novel’s plot, but in spite of the dramatic incidents and gradually unfurling backstories that crowd its pages, Hungry Ghosts is not really a novel of action. The mystery of Dalton’s absence is secondary, for example, to the mystery of his peculiar personality and identity, which is sketched out in a few pages as the book opens. Some kind of criminal, “his soul scripted to perdition”, he is also a strange and possibly mentally unstable figure who has dedicated a room of his house to a giant oil painting of a Chinese goddess that he believes has absorbed the spirit of his dead mother. There is something all the more disturbing and memorable about such a striking character remaining outside the novel’s frame, glimpsed only in flashback and report.
Absent too is Hans and Shweta’s infant daughter, Hema, whose death from a rapidly catastrophic illness they never speak about, although their grief remains acute. Krishna, born later, knows nothing of the sister he never met. Elsewhere, other parents and children are lost to one another, and lives are ruptured – Marlee herself has ascended to the position of local lady of the manor from beginnings so insalubrious that they fuel a low-grade but insistent motor of local gossip.
The intricacies of the narrative are eclipsed by the startling nature of its prose. Hosein’s style is one of sensory maximalism, in which unexpected shifts and juxtapositions repeatedly wrongfoot the reader. In the hurricane season, the rooms of the barrack are reimagined as cages and diving bells holding the inhabitants fast; during sex, Shweta feels as though her thighs are “two planks of a palisade fence” between which her husband’s presence is reduced to “a wolfdog’s conic penis, crab red, moving like a vigorous hacksaw”. At times this is all too much – sunburnt skin is “rufescent like a bison’s tongue”, and an early morning provides an “orphic moment”. Prose that is both direct and connotative can tip over into the portentous and overblown. But in between these moments, Hosein’s ability to home in on his characters’ frustrations and crumpled desires is powerful, more so because he often truncates their inner monologues as if to suggest that they themselves are struggling to confront them.
Hungry Ghosts is an ensemble piece, in which the most obviously foregrounded cast members are complemented by those whose lives we see only partially: the barrack elder, Rookmin, who attempts to dispense care to others; Robinson, one of Hans’s workmates, calmly insistent that even a dead dog be respectfully interred and remembered; the unpredictable twins, Rustam and Rudra, always on the edge of violence. All of them are held between past and future, their lives about to change as their country does, but with little indication as to the cost of transition.