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  • Writer's pictureCaroline

Sri Lanka - The Seven Moons...

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

Published 2022, with an earlier version of the novel published in 2020

Literary, Historical, Fantasy, Magical Realism, Satire

Setting: Colombo, Sri Lanka

[CWs: war, violence, death, torture, suicide, homophobia]

In life, Maali sits between two worlds. He is a photojournalist capturing the brutality of the civil war, while having dealings with agents on opposing sides of the conflict. He also sits between the insular world in which he is free to be with the man he loves, and the outer world that forces him to hide himself under a guise of heterosexuality. In death, he also finds himself in two worlds: suspended between the world of the living (where those he desperately wishes to reach can no longer see him) and the next world where he can be reborn again.

In this state of limbo, Maali finds himself in a kind of corporate foyer of purgatory, where he is processed as newly deceased and informed that he has just seven moons to accomplish his goal: to find out how he died, and who is responsible. On his way to achieve this task and attempt to contact the man and woman he loves most, he encounters an ensemble cast of spirits and demons, both helpful and malevolent.

I can definitely see why this one won the Booker Prize, although it is also quite divisive in the read the world community - some love it, some hate it! It is a novel of complexity that sucks you into a vortex of swirling colours and creeping darkness, and smears you with the worst sins of humanity while offering enough glimmers of hope to keep you from being lost to the void. Its a journey that begins with something of a whodunnit but morphs into so much more, with moments of magic, disgust, horror, tenderness, humour, satire and reflection. At times, the novel did feel almost full to bursting - I could feel it pressing my brain up against the edges of my skull taking it all in - and there were perhaps a couple of sub-plots that could have been stripped back without detracted from the overall story.

I really appreciated learning about some of the history of the Sri Lankan war, which I knew very little about, and about some of the different spiritual entities from the folklore - the descriptions of some of which are absolutely haunting, though not quite as haunting as the atrocities committed by the living characters. The blending of political and social history with the supernatural and religious iconography explores some difficult questions about morality through flawed, but compelling characters and a vivid second-person voice that drags you into the heart of the chaos.

Interestingly, this is a rework of an earlier novel, originally drafted as 'Devil Dance' then later titled 'Chats with the Dead' when published in India in 2020. In order to find an international publisher, Karunatilaka was advised to strip back some of the political context and mythology to make the novel more accessible to a Western audience. While I don't feel like an author should have to moderate their culture when writing, I can see why in this case the novel may not have reached the West without this rework; even in 'Seven Moons' there is a fair bit of context needed to fully understand the world Maali is situated in. The novel includes a helpful guide of the major political players of the time and a short glossary of related acronyms, which I did refer back to on multiple occasions, so admittedly I was grateful for the 'dumbing down' here in order to be able to penetrate the dark heart of 1980s Colombo and follow Maali's journey.


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