Hungry Ghosts- Kevin Jared Hosein (Bloomsbury 2023)

One of the titles I was really looking forward to this year by this Caribbean novelist and poet described by the BBC news website as “one of the most talked about forthcoming books in literary circles”.  It is admittedly impressive.

Set in 1940s Trinidad, yet the date feels largely irrelevant as there is a sense of timelessness which permeates the characters’ lives.  There are two main locations, one a large house lived in by Dalton and Marlee Changoor.  His wealth has come from unknown, suspicious means and the locals doubt the background of his younger wife.  The second setting is the barrack, an impoverished courtyard around which a number of families live, including Hans, his wife Shweta and their son, Krishna.  Hans is within both locations as he works in the Changoor grounds.  His aim is to escape the barrack and find land in the nearby Bell village but there are very few ways to escape the barrack.

The author creates a range of vividly drawn characters from their present existence and back stories.  This is a superb storyteller at work.  They are all very much products of their environment, an environment which is richly depicted with much description.  It’s been a long time since I have had to look up so many words, a number related to descriptions of flora and fauna and the surroundings- many used potentially for their sound as much as meaning, really bringing home that this is the work of a poet.

When Dalton Changoor goes missing the lives of the older characters are transformed.  I found the early sections of the book outstanding.  The younger generation’s lives are linked with a casual violence and as the novel continued the ripeness of the words and the environment soured, becoming over-ripe and I found myself getting queasy.  There was still much that impressed yet I found the subject matter led to passages that were difficult to read.  They will stay my mind but not for reasons I’d like.  There’s a slight over-egging of the horrors of life which dominated in the latter sections where I longed for some balance from the nightmarish world-view.  At one point some of the characters consume hallucinogenic mushrooms and it is as if this psychedelic paranoia pervades the novel from this point on.

Characterisation and story-telling great, it just became a little too much.  There is no doubt that Kevin Jared Hosein has written a haunting, impactful tale which has the feel of a modern classic whilst rooted in a historic, oral tradition.

Hungry Ghosts will be published in the UK by Bloomsbury on 16th February 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (2020)

This debut novel arrived last year with much critical acclaim and won the author the Best First Novel at The Costa Book Awards.  Set in Trinidad and New York it features the interspersed narratives of three characters- Betty, a school admin assistant who takes on teacher Mr Chetan as her lodger and her son Solo.  Spanning Solo’s adolescence and young manhood this contemporary novel focuses on the relationships between the three and the themes of love and forgiveness.

All of the characters have secrets, Betty was involved in the demise of her abusive husband; Mr Chetan is hiding his sexuality and Betty’s secret causes Solo to develop self-destructive, disturbing habits.  The tone is conversational from all three narrators with the use of dialect, potentially off-putting for some readers, giving it a real vitality with the layout of these narratives making it easy to read.  Perhaps an author with more experience might have been able to more strongly differentiate between the three voices but I didn’t feel this affected the quality of the writing here. Trinidad-born Ingrid Persaud excellently conveys life in a country I know very little about and is keen to illuminate the positives and negatives of this island life. 

I will admit that it took me a while to really get into this book but then at one point I realised I really cared for the characters and this built as the book drew to its conclusion with some shocking turns of events along the way, which had me reeling because of the emotions I was investing into these characters.  I then knew that the author had really drawn me in.  The sun-drenched cover implies a more idyllic read than it actually was, there are some dark moments to be faced here which I wasn’t expecting.  There is also much humour and beauty.

I felt quite purged by the end of the book and felt I had gone a long way with these characters and that they will remain with me.  That’s an achievement and I’m not surprised that Ingrid Persaud found herself being shortlisted for and winning prestigious awards for this debut.

Love After Love was published by Faber in 2020.