Review by Karl Verhoven
Valerie Chu is likeable and studious, but for many years she’s been hiding a secret. Her eating disorder began with her mother’s constant comments about people being fat and limiting what Valerie eats, and it’s reinforced by comments from loved relations.
Val carries the entire narrative, and there’s rarely a time when calories and carbs are not on her mind, but writer and artist Victoria Ying ensures there are occasional diversions. The most prominent is Val’s like of childhood friend Allan, but there’s also her father’s adventurous trips, for which he rewrites his will every time before setting off, and the forthcoming school trip to Paris is also on her mind.
“I’ll have to blend in. Eat what everyone else eats, but still be thin”, she thinks as she heads for the toilets after having a burger and shake with friend Allan and Jordan, “Be good, look good. Boys don’t like fat girls”. There’s a subtlety to the way Ying accompanies this with an illustration of Allan happily chatting to Jordan, pitied by Valerie’s mother for being a larger size.
Ying keeps the drawing simple with few distractions, which works for most of Hungry Ghost, but leads to some seriously underpopulated Parisian streets. Strong emotions are needed for where the story heads, and despite Val underlining how she always tries to be a good girl, Ying ensures we know how she really feels.
Part of growing into an adult is questioning the truths you’ve taken for granted your entire life, and when a succession of disasters impacts on Val, matters come to a head. Her mother is caring and believes her intentions are good in watching out for Val’s health, but her comments about Val putting on the slightest amount of weight are constant and condemnatory. There’s a really nice moment ending a scene in a restaurant when matters come to a head.
Because Hungry Ghost is fiction, Val is not perhaps the ideal example as she comes to the necessary realisations a little too rapidly, but she is designed to make readers think. Scenes with Val and Jordan are well constructed to slot into ongoing events, but the inclusion of a tragedy is too obviously foreshadowed, clumsily applied, and then has little impact on remaining events.
Eating disorders and the accompanying mental health issues aren’t anything to be trivialised, and as a society we’re only just beginning to realise the extent of them. Many people, although it’s usually teenage girls, feel there’s no-one they can turn to, which makes Hungry Ghost a valuable resource.