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.”