All my close friends know that I do not care a lot about Birthdays. But if there’s something I do love about them – it’s cake. I have to have the biggest slice from my own birthday cake. If we are celebrating someone else, I can settle for a thin sliver. So reading the graphic novel “Hungry Ghost” by Victoria Ying immediately filled me with sadness. The story begins with a flashback to protagonist Valerie Chu’s childhood birthday celebration when she was just a preteen. Her mother saves a special slice of cake for her at their house party – the smallest one. “Remember, don’t eat, just taste,” Val’s mom constantly warns her about avoiding weight gain.
So “Hungry Ghost” is about a teen girl’s complicated relationship with her body, food and her domineering mother. It serves as a reflection of how ‘well-meaning’ statements from parents can have devastating impact on a person’s psyche. Valerie is the perfect girl on the outside, she is smart, sweet, mild-mannered, fit and has great grades. But she grows up with twisted ideas about food, health and body imagery, which leads her into developing a severe eating disorder, even though she is just 17. I am guessing 17, because she is in the last year of High School and the author doesn’t explicitly mention the age anywhere.
Just a little over 200 pages, the graphic novel has beautiful artwork, with a sparse and simple color palette. Most of the pages are limited to pastel shades of blue, pink and greys, which adds a slow, pleasant touch to the tale, despite the dark issues explored in the story. Apart from her body-image issues, Valerie also has to deal with the tragic loss of a loved one, an event which forces her to re-look her relationship with food.
For someone with an eating disorder, Valerie is constantly surrounded by food, whether at home, at school, or even when she’s out hanging with friends. Her best friend is a vivacious and curvaceous girl named Jordan, whom her mom cruelly always refers to as the “fat” friend. In fact, even Valerie’s inner thoughts about her friend are mean, largely influenced by her mother’s persistent belief that overweight individuals are unattractive and unhealthy. There’s a small Paris trip in the story which instantly reminded me of “Heartstopper”, the popular YA romance series, which also features a protagonist with an eating disorder. While all her friends are excited to try out Parisian treats, Valerie is least bit interested in gobbling up anything, although she does hope some romance blooms between her and a cute guy she crushes on.
While I enjoyed reading about Valerie’s tumultuous feelings about food and how it infiltrates almost every minute of her day, even influencing the way she perceives others, the other characters could have used more character development. For example, all we know of Jordan is that she is cheerful and loves eating, so her only personality trait is munching food. Valerie’s mother, on the other hand, is simply awful, and it’s absurd how the woman’s behavior is excused as a “mother’s way of showing love.” Even when her daughter confesses to being bulimic, the mother simply tells her to ‘diet,’ instead of addressing the issue more empathetically. The sheer insensitivity and lack of empathy the parent displays shouldn’t have been glossed over.
The ending of “Hungry Ghost” feels somewhat rushed, though Victoria Ying emphasizes that all of Valerie’s troubles don’t simply vanish like magic. While I haven’t read many books exploring eating disorders, as someone who lacked confidence in their body as a teenager, some parts of this graphic novel really hit home to me. If the themes of eating disorders and loss are not triggering for you, “Hungry Ghost” is a compelling book well worth delving into.
Rating: 4 on 5.