I began thinking about Hungry Ghosts in the
years immediately after I left Hong Kong, with the broad intention
of writing about the place before it officially left British hands
and was reclaimed by China in 1997. My interest in the subject was
first sparked because by chance I happened to be in Hong Kong at the
time of the Tiannamen Square massacre in June, 1989. The whole place
was riveted by the spectacle of what was happening across the sea in
China. You could almost hear the communal intake of breath as this
tangled, frantic city of millions waited to see what would happen.
The students were camped in the Square, taking on the brute force of
the government, and the people of Hong Kong watched on television screens,
on satellite, read newspapers and waited. There were marches in the
streets, meetings of a thousand people holding lighted candles and
swaying. The city was blazing: charged, electric and I had never witnessed
anything like it.
Like many others of my generation, I had grown up on the dream of Europe,
and Asia had not really penetrated my consciousness. Suddenly I was
vitally interested in this place so close to Australia, attracted by
its terrible dramas, much like one's eyes are irretrievably drawn to
an accident. Also, other things were going on in my life: I met the
man who became my second husband and by the end of the book I was awaiting
the birth of our first baby. The book was written in a kind of mad
rush to the finish line and I think the panting tone of the book reflects
this. The plot rushes ahead to its inevitable conclusion and I had
to force myself each night to stop. I began the book in London in 1994
and finished it in Sydney on August 7, 1995 and our son Caspar was
born the next day.
Readers often ask how autobiographical Hungry Ghosts is, and
I always reply: everything I know is contained in every book I write.
Obviously, some books more readily resemble the outward facts of a
writer's life than others and this book uses much of my own experience
of living in Hong Kong, my sense of internal "exile", my bouts of dislocation
and mental disarray (in my case, panic attacks when I was in my early
twenties), my own knowledge of love and its betrayals. There are clear
parts of myself in Anne-Louise, and in Rachel and probably in Martin,
too. But for characters to truly come alive in fiction there must undergo
some transmutation, a kind of alchemy which makes them represent more
than themselves. As James Atlas recently wrote in an essay in The
New Republic, "A writer would never take someone from life in
this thieving way, for the good reason that there are only a limited
number of things to say about an actual person, while there are an
infinite number of things to say about an imagined person. Characters
are always composites: a little of this actual person, a little of
that one, and then a strong imagined element".
As I have written elsewhere, I have sometimes borrowed bits and pieces
here and there from my own life, from people that I know, from stories
that I have heard. But these borrowed parts must form a new whole,
a totally new person, cut adrift from their early, scrambled selves.
It is fiction's job to re-imagine life in its entirety, so that in
the end the artful lies of a novel shines brighter than ordinary life.
In Hungry Ghosts, I wanted to write, too, about the birth
of artistic consciousness, and the character of Rachel allows me to
do that. I loathed living in Hong Kong actually, and I gave Rachel
all that passionate hatred. It's a dark, tangled book and readers either
love it or loathe it!
Hungry Ghosts portrays a friendship that is challenged by
manic depression, competition, artistic temperaments and the boundaries
of loyalty. The story travels effortlessly between Sydney, London and
Hong Kong, progressively revealing the lives of Anne-Louise and Rachel,
both painters, and eventually their ultimate test, a man they believe
they both love. It is essentially the story of a love triangle, but
retold in a fresh, startlingly original way so that it tells us something
new about the nature of women, and their friendships.
The novel shifts in time and point of view revealing Johnson's writing
skills. Hungry Ghosts embraces and tackles the complex psychological
problems of two of the three characters with depth and a quality of
language that allows the reader to experience the emotional tumult
and the reasoning behind the characters choices. Empathy is created
for the characters who themselves personify ''hungry ghosts''. Tegan
Bennett, in The Sydney Morning Herald (November 9, 1996) wrote:
''There isn't enough room here to sift through the many layers of metaphor
and meaning in Hungry Ghosts. Take it on trust that this is
a book written with enormous skill and dedication. It's thorough, it's
challenging and intelligent, and it's beautifully put together. One
of the best of the year".
Martin Bannister, the third character in this remarkable triangle,
enters the story having just arrived into Hong Kong with his heart
and mind set on making money. He successfully makes his fortune and
lives a life of luxury and financial extravagance. However, Bannister's
character soon reveals a sadomasochistic urge which is presented with
similar literary precision and empathy.
This is Johnson's third book and she has achieved a powerfully well-crafted
novel. She has created a feeling of wanting, which flows and builds.
Mandy Sayer wrote in The Australian (November 9, 1996): ''This
novel is so well crafted it exudes a breathless quality...with the
publication of this book, the author has achieved what her character
can only dream of, leaving this reader starving for more of Johnson's
delicious fictional cuisine''.
Depicting the universal themes of friendship and love and what happens
when desires clash, Hungry Ghosts is a powerful addition to
Johnson's literary collection.
Jamie Grant, in Who Weekly wrote: ". . . a novel that combines
emotional power with assured artistic polish".
The Courier-Mail wrote: ''In charting the dark, subterranean
urges in people's lives, Hungry Ghosts is not unlike Carey's The
Tax Inspector. Only better."