The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
by Shehan Karunatilaka
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Pub Date 01 Nov 2022 | Archive Date 31 Oct 2022
Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a searing satire set amid the mayhem of the Sri Lankan civil war.
Colombo, 1990. Maali Almeida—war photographer, gambler, and closet queen—has woken up dead in what seems like a celestial visa office. His dismembered body is sinking in the serene Beira Lake and he has no idea who killed him. In a country where scores are settled by death squads, suicide bombers, and hired goons, the list of suspects is depressingly long, as the ghouls and ghosts with grudges who cluster round can attest. But even in the afterlife, time is running out for Maali. He has seven moons to contact the man and woman he loves most and lead them to the photos that will rock Sri Lanka.
Ten years after his prize-winning novel The Legend of Pradeep Matthew established him as one of Sri Lanka’s foremost authors, Shehan Karunatilaka is back with a “thrilling satire” (Economist) and rip-roaring state-of-the-nation epic that offers equal parts mordant wit and disturbing, profound truths.
"Comic, macabre, angry and thumpingly alive."-Economist
"There can't be many novels that simultaneously bring to mind Agatha Christie, Salman Rushdie, Raymond Chandler, John le Carré and Stranger Things-but this one does… [E]xhilarating."-James Walton, Times
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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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