I’m going to go all out in the opening line of this review and say that The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is one of the finest novels I have ever read, and as an English teacher and lifelong avid reader, that is really saying something. As the 2022 winner of The Booker Prize, Karunatilaka’s second novel has received much acclaim, and rightly so. It is equal parts ghost story, murder mystery, political satire, love triangle and dark comedy and I was enthralled from the opening page until the poignant conclusion.
You wake up with the answer to the question that everyone asks. The answer is Yes, and the answer is Just Like Here But Worse.
The story is set in Colombo in late 1989 amidst the confusion and carnage of the Sri Lankan civil war. Freelance photographer, Maali Almeida, has awoken in the afterlife, known as the In Between, with no memory of how he has died. The In Between is exactly that – a place closely connected to the world of the living and a crowded bureaucratic processing centre for souls as they prepare to move on towards The Light. Maali has seven moons, the equivalent of seven days, to sort out his affairs before he is stuck forever in the In Between where his soul will be made vulnerable to all sorts of ghouls, demons, hungry ghosts and terrifying creatures such as the Mahakali. The afterlife is populated with dead insurgents looking for revenge, suicides who continue to jump off buildings, murdered tourists who continue to sightsee and Helpers striving to guide the newly dead through this transitional stage. Throughout his journey Maali converses with a host of countrymen and women who in their afterlife ruminate on various topics such as the political landscape of Sri Lanka, religion, family, injustice, war and what really matters in a life. It is very deliberate that Karunatilaka is allowing the many victims of Sri Lanka’s to speak rather than slipping into ‘sweet oblivion and dreamless sleep.’
The afterlife is a tax office and everyone wants their rebate.
Maali’s afterlife is just as complicated as his life was. He is forced to witness his body being dismembered and dumped in the heavily polluted Beira Lake by ‘garbage men’ – criminals employed to dispose of the countless bodies from the myriad acts of violence that characterise the civil war. As Maali gradually shares his life story with the reader, we learn about the photographs that he has carefully stashed away – evidence of atrocities committed against civilians by government death squads, and of those corrupt officials who orchestrate these heinous acts – which may hold the key to his murder. There is also the complex relationships with his best friend, flat-mate and faux girlfriend, Jaki, and his secret lover DD, the son of an influential government minister. While Jaki and DD are determined to track down their missing friend, Maali is desperately trying to direct them to the photos and negatives that will rock Colombo society.
I take photos. I bear witness to crimes that no one else sees. I am needed.
Karunatilaka’s novel is witty but also dark, confronting the reader with the realities of a conflict that raged for over two decades. The narrative continues to return to the violent events of 1983 – the official beginning of the long-running civil war that was predominantly fought between the Sinhalese dominant Sri Lankan government and the militant group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the country. As a photojournalist and ‘fixer’ of interviews for the Associated Press, Maali interacts with all factions of the conflict, providing multiple suspects who could have been responsible for his death. But more importantly, Maali’s positioning as a character allows Karunatilaka to expose a society deeply and detrimentally divided by ethnic and political differences. As Maali writes to an American journalist to explain the complexities of the conflict ‘Don’t try looking for the good guys ‘cause there ain’t none.’
The ghoul tells you she was a lawyer who had chambers in Marandana until on July 1983 she walked past the bus stand to buy cigarettes and encountered a Sinhalese mob with torches. “I always know smoking would kill me,’ she deadpans.
Maali’s narration is delivered in second person, an uncommon approach, which has the effect of immersing and connecting the reader more closely to the Maali’s experiences. Furthermore, it emphasises his discovery that the dead are always nearby whispering to the living or visiting us in our dreams, blurring the line between what are our own thoughts and what is being whispered to us.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is not the first novel to be narrated by a dead character. Past Booker Prize winner Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sanders, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, narrated by Death himself, have all used this unconventional approach to storytelling. What sets Karunatilaka’s novel apart is the force of the story he crafts about a dark and complex period, not only for himself and his fellow Sri Lankans, but for humanity. Sri Lanka continues to feel the impacts of its past and its struggle for reconciliation, in addition to experiencing further political and economic crises. Ultimately, Shehan Karunatilaka novel serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of storytelling as a potential means of confronting and living with the wounds of the past.
Having finished this review, I discovered that Shehan Karunatilaka was to be featured as part of the 2023 Melbourne Writers Festival. Not one to miss an opportunity to have my book signed, I promptly purchased tickets. Interviewed by ABC RN’s Kate Evans, it was delightful to hear Karunatilaka discuss the inspiration behind this novel, including the earlier version Chats with the Dead, published primarily for a sub-continental audience, and its evolution into the sublime The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. As reflected in his writing, Karunatilaka has a keen sense of humour and was very open to answering all questions related to his work. I also had the chance to purchase Karunatilaka’s debut novel Chinaman, which I anticipate will be an equally compelling mystery. Despite a very long line of enthusiasts for his novel, Karunatilaka graciously posed for a photo, signed both books and was interested in this review. He mentioned that he is in the early days of writing his third novel, but that he is a slow writer – I get the feeling that whenever this third novel is published, it will be well worth the wait.