Gears & Ghosts: Writing Close Third Person and Effective Endings (HUNGRY GHOSTS, by Kevin Jared Hosein)

Gears & Ghosts: Writing Close Third Person and Effective Endings (HUNGRY GHOSTS, by Kevin Jared Hosein)

Let’s tinker in the guts of books!

Welcome to Part 1 of a series called Gears & Ghosts, in which I cozy up with a stack of novels and figure out how they work, like a curious mechanic poking around various well designed haunted house rides. If you’re wondering why anyone would want to do this, here’s the intro post.

I imagine these informal pieces will be mostly of interest to fellow writers with works-in-progress (if they’re interesting to anyone at all), but if you’re a non-writer who likes book recs, occasional silly jokes, and philosophical detours, you are quite welcome to stick around.

Today’s marvel of a novel:


Hungry Ghosts, by Kevin Jared Hosein

  1. The prose is a dream: musical but never overwrought, rich with fresh metaphors, studded with sensory details that root us in the setting.
  2. It will transport you. I was grateful to the author for bringing me so vividly into 1940s Trinidad, a part of the world I’ve never been to and a time I can never go to. Even beyond that, the inner landscapes Hosein creates for each character are so distinct that they function like settings-within-the-setting.
  3. It will move you. This novel paints with the whole human palette—tenderness, brutality, injustice, aspiration, mystery, rage, grief, hope, reflection, love, revenge, curiosity, terror, resignation, temptation—and every bit of it is done well.

From the jacket copy:

Trinidad in the 1940s, nearing the end of American occupation and British colonialism. On a hill overlooking Bell Village sits the Changoor farm, where Dalton and Marlee Changoor live in luxury unrecognizable to those who reside in the farm’s shadow. Down below is the barrack, a ramshackle building of wood and tin, divided into rooms occupied by whole families. Among these families are the Saroops—Hans, Shweta, and their son, Krishna, all three born of the barracks. Theirs are hard lives of backbreaking work, grinding poverty, devotion to faith, and a battle against nature and a social structure designed to keep them where they are.

But when Dalton goes missing and Marlee’s safety is compromised, farmhand Hans is lured by the promise of a handsome stipend to move to the farm as a watchman. As the mystery of Dalton’s disappearance unfolds, the lives of the wealthy couple and those who live in the barracks below become insidiously entwined, their community changed forever and in shocking ways…

This series is titled “Gears and Ghosts” not just because of the haunted-house-ride metaphor, but because I want to pay attention to two things in each book:

  1. What is the spirit animating this story? What does it care about? What’s at its core?
  2. What are the techniques the writer is using to achieve that end? What craft or techniques did they use?

Only the author can say for sure what the beating heart of this story is, of course, but one word that springs to mind is desire.

Again and again, characters must decide what to do with their desires when outside forces seek to confine them to tightly controlled spaces.

In the space of one novel, Hosein explores a remarkable number of central human desires: For freedom and respectful treatment in one’s own homeland (or home). For love and romance. Connection. Camaraderie. Emotional and physical healing. Greater comfort and security. Freedom from want. Freedom from abuse and harassment. Safety for children. Justice.

A host of outside forces seek to curtail those desires. Some of those forces are societal: governing powers, law enforcement, business owners, the church, school administrators. (That jacket copy phrase, “a social structure designed to keep them where they are,” points to a theme that runs throughout the novel.) Some of them occur on a smaller scale: abusive spouses, abusive parents, manipulative lovers, the cruelty of children.

The story that results is not only a condemnation of those controlling powers & structures (though it’s definitely that); it’s also an exploration of how and why human beings make their choices within these circumstances. Will they accept things as they are? Adapt and assimilate? Commit acts of resistance? Fight? Seek revenge? Numb or distract themselves? Pursue some ambition that might lift them them out of it? Find a way to escape or walk away?

As the novel progresses, this question extends to the spaces within the characters as well. All those controlling structures spring from hatred, fear, greed, the desire for dominance, indifference to others’ humanity. They’re built with hateful measures and maintained by hateful power.

Is it possible to exist in these structures without hatred seeping into and shaping your own heart?
If so, how?
If not, then what? 

Among the things I find so beautiful about this book is how the author closely follows several characters, rather than a single protagonist, to explore how this central question manifests in different people’s lives.

When you’re writing multiple characters, switching off between their stories, the reader has less time on the page with each of them. How, then, does the writer get us invested in all of them?

Hosein pulls it off by moving quickly and deeply into each character via close third person point of view.

In close third person, the writer uses third-person pronouns (he/she/they) for that character, but writes in an intimate way that communicates a single character’s thoughts from within. Here’s a bit from the point of view of Krishna, for example, a thirteen-year-old boy who lives in the barracks but attends school in Bell Village:

On one side [of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway], 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 a new world, howling and preaching steel and diesel and rayon and vinyl and gypsum and triple-glazed glass…

Krishna was the only child in the barrack enrolled there. Despised it. They cut his hair. His classmates were all from Bell. Despised them all. Some were Hindu at home but Presbyterian at school. Not him. One cannot be both, is what he thought. You must choose one. Only a fool would spread his soul thin.

(By the way, do you see what I mean about the prose being a dream? And being rooted in the setting with tactile details?)

Krishna isn’t giving his thoughts as an “I” speaking to us, but we’re very much seeing the world as Krishna sees it. Throughout the book, Hosein employs this same technique with several other characters–Marlee Changoor, Hans Saroop, Shweta Saroop, Lata (another young teenager in the barracks), and others. We come to care about all of them and understand the reasons for their actions, even as their choices move them (or other characters) another step toward danger.

Throughout this series I’ll be reading these books with two minds.

One is reader-mind: getting lost in the story.
The other is writer-mind: thinking about what I can learn.

The pleasure of reading a book as a fellow craftsperson, trying to learn new things, is that you can look at how other writers solve the problems you’re trying to solve. In my case (as I mentioned in the series intro): I’m writing a new novel now, and I can feel it’s different from my first, which was a coming-of-age story. In a coming-of-age novel, we’re rooting for the main character’s growth: to struggle through trials, have some epiphanies, makes some changes, emerge with more self-possession and awareness of life’s complexities. It’s enough for that one person to transform, even if no one else around them does. But my second novel is interested in different things. If the first book asked, in essence, How do we live in a way that allows us to be whole?, I think this second book is asking: How do we live in recognition that we’re part of a whole? The final scene of this next book is going to need something more than “girl, changed, stands alone at the edge of the ocean.”

I mention this only because, as I got further into Hosein’s book, I realized it could teach me something about how to end a novel that sets its eyes on something bigger than one character’s growth. I don’t want to give spoilers, so I’ll just say that plot-wise, you can feel the various storylines intensifying and playing against each other in a perfect-storm kind of way that feels destined to end in catastrophe. But because we’re invested in so many different characters, my writer-mind began to wonder: How will the writer choose to end this? Who will be in the final scene? How will it close out? The ending of a book is, in many ways, its soul on display.

Endings of novels are often planted in the beginning.

I don’t mean you can necessarily figure out the ending by reading the beginning. But I mean the writer usually sets up a question or a tension early on that is answered by the end of the book. It may not be resolved, but it’s addressed. So when I saw this paragraph early in the book, it lit up as a possible clue:

Krishna ate dinner by flambeau light, trying to bat away the mosquitoes from his bhaji rice. After sunset, his mother put out the flambeau. The plains were so dark now that he could barely see his own hands. The egrets flew overhead. When the toads quieted, the world outside vanished. There was nothing left to do now but sleep. As he drifted off, he reminded himself:

Don’t let the dreams fool you.
This is your place in the world.
And there is no other world but this one.
There is no other body than the one the gods have paired you with.
And there is no other life but the one to which you are bound.

I can already feel American readers resisting this declaration, with our cultural affinity for dream-big stories and rise-above stories and the belief in infinite individual possibility. But I think it’s important to let this moment be what it is and just listen to it. Krishna has reasons for his conclusions and reasons for repeating them to himself. (Contrast the peace of the flambeau light, the egrets, and the quiet toads with the trauma of attending the school in Bell Village, for example. Trauma that occurs because of the structures set up by British colonialism and American occupation.) And if we keep reading closely, we’ll learn why he feels this way, and what that will mean for him.

When a character declares something so confidently, so early in a book, the story is usually going to spend some time examining that idea:

challenging or subverting it, showing its merits or its origins, complicating it and showing its consequences. Sometimes—as in Hungry Ghosts, I’d argue—it does all of the above. The idea of having to choose one world over another (“One cannot be both… Only a fool would spread his soul thin”) will also reappear at a critical moment toward the end.

I don’t want to give away the ending of this compelling novel, but I greatly admired it. The closing scene draws close on two characters, and they’re not the ones I expected, but they feel right. For one, they’re present right there at the beginning of the book, so there’s a full-circle feeling. For another, they’re making a choice that directly speaks to Krishna’s declaration above. True to what Hosein does in the rest of the book, that choice is not presented as an unqualified happily-ever-after; we don’t know if it will work out for them, though we hope it does. And true to what Hosein is doing in the rest of the book—because again, this is a story about a community and a whole social structure, not a single protagonist—we also see what happens to other characters who defy or acquiesce to the idea of This is your place in the world.

Essentially, Hungry Ghosts has my favorite kind of ending: satisfying, but complicated, and a little uncertain.

It follows up on the promises the story has been making for the past 300 pages:

That this is about many lives, not just one.
That each one of those lives matters.

That the world is unjust and full of tyranny, on scales big and small.
That even so, human beings exercise agency—not least over their own hearts.

There’s a poignant, telling moment toward the end of the book, in which a particular character (I won’t say who; I’m trying not to give spoilers here) is grieving his dog:

The land oblivious to his surly state. The howling of dogs, aligned on some tableau fixed into his mind. He fantasised that, far from earshot, the bell in the Presbyterian church was tolling for his dog. Though he knew a dead dog was of little consequence to the world. But he loved her—and she had kept hate out of his heart. Still did.

As I said in the beginning, Hungry Ghosts paints with the whole human palette.

That means it never shies away from depicting the utter cruelty human beings are capable of. It also means that this sentence—”he loved her—and she had kept hate out of his heart”—is anything but sentimental. It’s an articulation of something this character still wants, despite the cruelty of the people around him, the indifference, “the land oblivious.” No one would blame him for choosing otherwise. But ultimately he decides:

[T]o live with hate was to slowly rot. But right now, his heart was beating, and his legs were strong. There was another world out there. He could find it—the same way the dog had found him. And there must be something out there that he could love—and could love him in return.

That’s not the last page, or even the last chapter—but it feels like a natural place to exit the ride.

Buy Hungry Ghosts here from (a wonderful alternative to Amazon that supports independent bookstores) or go and request it from your local indie!

More soon,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *