Cover Image: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

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Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1990: Maali Almeida wakes up dead. Not hallucinating, not dreaming, simply dead with no memory of how his death came to pass. The afterlife - a bustling, bureaucratic nightmare - provides him with seven moons to wander among the In-Between before forgetting everything. He is determined to use those seven moons to lead someone to his cache of government-toppling, axiom-shifting photographs he kept under the bed. Meanwhile, he encounters characters in the afterlife that walk readers through the darkest parts of 1980s Sri Lanka - victims of the civil war, a professor murdered by the Tamil Tigers, and a slain member of the JVP. 

What can I say about this novel that has not already been said? I loved it! It was dark and gritty but almost humorous? The author balances the dark with propulsive plotting, jumping back and forth between "current day" (1990 when he is dead) and his life in the 1980s, leading up to the period of his death, and memorable characters that track the unforgettable recent history of his nation. It was an excellent story and excellent writing. Told in the second-person (a personal favorite when the author can pull it off) with a compelling main character who spends his days in casinos, in the arms of lovers, and spying on powerful people for shady organizations. Readers are instructed on the history of Sri Lanka, its colonization, and more recent attempts by NGOs and IGOs to 'intervene' and 'help' the country as it catapulted through a violent, deathly decade.
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I spent the first two thirds of this novel confused about the who, what and why of what was happening. Lots of characters, some living and some dead and not always clear about who was which,  the first two thirds of this novel confused about the who, what and why of what was happening. Lots of characters, some living and some dead and not always clear about who was which, lots of conversations that I struggled to make sense of, and a plot that skipped back and forth in time made this a difficult read for me. Finally the last portion of the book started making sense to me, whew! I do appreciate learning more about Sri Lanka and the terrible years of their civil war and the insight into power of the leaders.

Thanks to NetGalley and W.W. Norton and Company for the ARC to read and review.
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This book is wild.

Maali Almeida has just died, and the only reason he knows that is because he's woken up in a processing office for the dead and has been told he's got 7 moons to figure out what he wants to do about his afterlife. Important stuff, but he wants to not only figure out how he died, but he needs to figure out how to get his friends, who are still alive, to find the hidden photos he took that could change the world, in his opinion. 

I went into this book without knowing a lot, aside from that it won the Booker prize, and I think that's a pretty solid way to start the book. There is a LOT that goes on in the story, and I didn't know that Sri Lanka had so much civil unrest and party division and such! So there's a lot of historical learning that goes along with the story as well. I enjoyed it overall, even though I felt overwhelmed half of the time! The last 25% or so of the book had me locked in desperately.

Thanks to Netgalley and WW Norton and Company for the eARC!
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This book has recently won the Booker prize. I finished the book a few days ago and have been thinking of how to review it.   The narrator's description of where he was in the afterlife during his 7 moons was a bit confusing with the multitude of characters and roles they played in everything from who killed Maali to their quest to kill those who betrayed them.  It took me quite a few days to persevere through the book.  There seemed to be multiple things that were brought up as an integral part of the overall story.  

I was given a copy through Netgalley for an honest review.
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The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida started its publishing life as Chats With The Dead released by Hamish Hamilton in 2020. When I was searching for it in 2021, that's the title it went by online which still was difficult to get a hold of. Fast forward a year and after being nominated and winning the Booker, access is so much easier. Thanks to W.W.Norton Company and Netgalley for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Halfway through this book, I switched to a finished published version for the easier to read format so any quotes in this review have been checked against the finalized version.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a Sri Lankan metaphysical political satire murder thriller. The protagonist, Malinda Albert Kabalana, born of a Sinhalese father and a half-Tamil, half-Burgher mother finds himself at the age of 35 in the land of the In Between. Also known as the Bardo in Buddhist belief, it is where one's soul goes to after death before the next life. Maali styles himself as "Photographer. Gambler. Slut." on his name card. We are given to understand that he has taken politically charged photographs such as that of the 1983 riots with an important government minister watching impassively. We join Maali in trying to figure out the bureaucratic inanities at In Between which involves going for a requisite "Ear Check"("the ears are karmic fingerprints" and "In them lie fossils of past lives and forgotten sins.") as well as finding out how many moons he has before heading to the River of Births. 

Along the way of figuring out the mystery of his own murder, Maali encounters ghosts who have been disappeared, tortured, lynched, hanged, bombed, blown up by mines, assassinated. This is where some background knowledge of Sri Lankan history and politics is helpful, there’s some basic information in the book ostensibly for a newbie American diplomat which also benefits non-Lankan readers. Prior to reading this book, I knew of the conflict between the Sinhalese Lions and Tamil Tigers in basic terms but this novel goes onto a deep dive of the JVP, LTTE, the ministers, state-sanctioned violence, the Indian peacekeeping forces, the Israeli and Pakistani arms dealers, the international community's culpability. It points to corruption, power concentration, unholy alliances, mob violence and hatred but also the countless lives lost and everyday suffering.

In the meantime, Maali's soul is also courted by the Makahili, the devourer of souls. We also encounter yakas (devils) "yakas are made, not born, and each has a story that they no longer tell.The Cannibal Uncle was a Pettah bomb blast victim. The Feral Child was made to kill his uncles for the Tigers. The Sea Demon had been ragged to death at university. The Atheist Ghoul was a provincial councillor carved up by the JVP. Black Sari Lady lost five children to the war." Maali tries to figure out the hierarchy "‘Ghost, ghoul, preta, devil, yaka, demon." But as Maali's father tells a ten-year-old him "‘You know why the battle of good vs evil is so one -sided, Malin? Because evil is better organised, better equipped and better paid. It is not monsters or yakas or demons we should fear. Organised collectives of evil doers who think they are performing the work of the righteous. That is what should make us shudder.’" At the end, Maali himself tells us "Do not be afraid of demons; it is the living we should fear. Human horrors trump anything that Hollywood or the afterlife can conjure. Always remember this when you encounter a wild animal or a stray spirit. They are not as dangerous as you. Ghosts are afraid of other ghosts. And of you. And of the infinite nothing."

Amid the diverting asides about pangolins and the Sri Lankan flag and afterlife mythology, what stands out starkly is the scale of human suffering. In Buddhist terms known as samsara. Whether it's the Pettah bomb blast, the 1971 JVP purge, the 1983 riots, intolerance of homosexuals or nearby Indonesia's mass killings of communists in 1965, it's wearyingly clear that we humans are capable of committing horrific acts of violence against each other. While the novel does delve a bit into theological discussions ('‘Is God unable to stop evil? Or unwilling?’), the Makahali forces Maali to admit "‘We have fucked it up . All by ourselves.’" With seven moons and the Light, our journey with snarky optimistic Maali has been both eye-opening and cynicism inducing. 4.5 stars.

"Lankans can’t queue. Unless you define a queue as an amorphous curve with multiple entry points."

"The afterlife is a tax office and everyone wants their rebate."

"We are a flicker of light between two long sleeps. Forget the fairy tales of gods and hells and previous births. Believe in odds and in fairness and in stacking decks that are already stacked, in playing your hand as best you can for as long as you can. You were led to believe that death was sweet oblivion and you were wrong on both counts."

"‘History is people with ships and weapons wiping out those who forgot to invent them. Every civilisation begins with a genocide. It is the rule of the universe. The immutable law of the jungle, even this one made of concrete. You can see it in the movement of the stars, and in the dance of every atom. The rich will enslave the penniless. The strong will crush the weak.’"

"‘Hindu disciplines mention brahmacharya and fidelity but no rape . Buddhism’s kaamesu michch charya doesn’t specify rape. Islam forbids bacon, foreskin and gambling. But no rape.’
‘Laws are written by men,’..."

"Despair always begins as a snack that you nibble on when bored and then becomes a meal that you have thrice a day."

"Despite all speeches made to the contrary, the naked bodies of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers are indistinguishable. We all look the same when held to the flame."
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I think this would have been a 5 star read for me if I knew more about the history and the culture. It was still interesting and beautifully written.
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War photographer Maali Almeida woke up dead, dismembered, and not knowing how he died. In a time when Sri Lanka is plagued by suicide bombs, death squads, and militias, the suspect list for Maali’s murder is long, especially when he has a secret stash of images that could upend the political system. Nonetheless, Maali only has seven moons to guide his friends and family to the photos and find his killer.

SEVEN MOONS is an unflinching examination of the political turmoil in Sri Lanka during the 90s. Karunatilaka points out the brutality of different factions tearing a country apart while revealing foreign influences, especially from western countries, and their hypocrisy in “peacekeeping.”

SEVEN MOONS is narrated in the second person, which can feel awkward initially. There are also a lot of details about Sri Lanka’s history and politics, which some have said are unnecessary. Still, I find the background information interesting and crucial for readers unfamiliar with Sri Lanka.

Even though it’s marketed as political satire, SEVEN MOONS is closer to a murder mystery imo, especially when compared to the two other shortlisted novels, GLORY (NoViolet Bulawayo) and THE TREES (Parcival Everett), where both adopt a more sarcastic tone. The pacing of SEVEN MOONS is impeccable, and I was hooked from the beginning. It has a more focused plot than GLORY and a more exciting twist compared to THE TREES.

SEVEN MOONS is not an easy read by any means, but an essential one to understand those haunted by political restlessness from colonizers to warlords. Congratulations again to Karunatilaka for this well-deserved prize!
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I tried to get into this book. However, it was all over the place and quite confusing. It did not pull me in at all. Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy it. How this has won a Booker award is beyond me. Maybe this book wasn't for me.
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It’s 1990 in Colombo, Sri Lanka when freelance war photographer Maali Ameida finds himself in the In Between with no memory of how he died. For seven days, he can move between his world and the afterlife. There is so much plot packed into this literary fiction novel — exposing brutally violent factions in Sri Lankan politics, solving a murder mystery, describing homosexuality prejudice, and existing after dying — while still fully developing the imperfect titular character. There’s no denying that the novel is well written including sprinkles of humor and satire, but I struggled a bit staying immersed in the story until the last three-quarters as the ending is pure perfection. Well deserved winner of the 2022 Booker Prize!
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Yesterday, my spine tingled over the announcement that THE SEVEN MOONS OF MAALI ALMEIDA by Shehan Karunatilaka won the 2022 Booker Prize. I just finished it over the weekend and it managed to edge out GLORY and THE TREES for my favorite of the shortlisted books. I suppose now is the moment for a full review!

SEVEN MOONS follows the titular character after he’s just died in Sri Lanka in 1990 under mysterious circumstances and awakens in the afterlife. He learns that he has seven days to decide whether to proceed to “The Light” or else remain in this purgatory-like in-between state forever. Over the next week, he tries to piece together how he died, how to get his photographs (incriminating several powerful people) into the right hands, and whether he should indeed choose The Light or stay in The In-Between. 

Maali is such a fascinating character: photographer of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war, gambling addict, semi-closeted gay man in an unaccepting society, not a stellar son or friend, but with a strong conscience about some things. The character development of both Maali and the supporting cast was one of the things that made SEVEN MOONS stand out over my other shortlisted faves (GLORY and THE TREES). 

The writing is excellent. Karunatilaka weaves in gambling analogies and imagery, employs clever satire without going too dark or callous, and meticulously builds suspense such that the ante keeps growing. It did take me a little over 10% of the book to start getting into it, but I’d encourage you to give it a chance despite the slow start. The thematic explorations are well-done and sometimes surprising, and the mix of both political and personal concerns was exquisite. There’s a better-defined plot than in GLORY and the ending is more satisfying than in THE TREES.

Lastly, it’s such an intriguing window into a time and place with which most readers are unfamiliar. I had only vague notions of Sri Lanka’s history prior to this book, despite reading Anuk Arudpragasam’s A PASSAGE NORTH earlier this year, but SEVEN MOONS gave me a lot more context and understanding in a way that didn’t feel pedantic.

I’d recommend this one widely; even though it’s not all easy reading, it’s so rewarding. Fans of satire will definitely like this, and even if you’re not, it may just be that you haven’t read the right one (I thought I didn’t like satire until I read SEVEN MOONS, GLORY, and THE TREES – all of which do it much better than some other booksta faves in the genre). There’s a tender human element to this one that I loved, and I hope you will, too. It reminded me of George Saunders’ LINCOLN IN THE BARDO (which I also highly recommend!) and Karunatilaka actually named that one as one of his influences, so that would be a fun (and moving) pairing.
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Set in late 80's Sri Lanka, war photographer Maali Almeida awakens in a liminal space called the In-Between.  He has seven moons (i.e. seven days) to decide whether he wants to enter the Light or remain a spectral figure, as well as seven days to resolve outstanding issues such as figuring out who murdered him, reconnect with loved ones, and direct them to finding critically important photographs he has taken.  I enjoyed certain aspects of this, but it required more concentration than I was willing to give.  There are MANY characters with difficult to remember names, and it assumes some familiarity with Sri Lankan history and Hindu folklore.
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Set in 1990 Sri Lanka, a photographer of war atrocities tries to solve his own murder from the afterlife.
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