Book Picks: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is, above all else, a murder mystery told from the perspective of the murder victim who cannot—for the life of him (pardon the pun)—recall how he wound up dead. Set in 1990 during Sri Lanka’s civil war, the mystery unfolds over seven “moons” or days as our ghostly narrator tries to solve the riddle before the clock runs out on his chance to enter “The Light.”

If this sounds like good grim fun, it is. It also vastly undersells everything Shehan Karunatilaka is doing in his Booker Prize-winning novel. The story is a carousel of wartime horrors, presented to us by a nihilistic narrator who worked as a war photographer for “all sides.” And if you aren’t up on your Sri Lankan history (I wasn’t), the number of sides—and therefore, murder suspects—is dizzying. 

But it’s not just a crash course in the JVP, LTTE, Tigers, UNP, SWRD, and other armed political groups of 1980s Sri Lanka. It’s also a heist. From beyond the grave, Maali is determined to print a secret cache of his photos and post them around the capital city, believing that exposing the complicity of the powerful will finally help end the war. Inevitably, he isn’t the only Sri Lankan ghost trying to settle old scores, and the dead tend to recreate the same factions in the afterlife. Stuck in the bardo for seven days, he contends with political recruiters and other demons—and we get a chance to see how skilled he is at surviving.

Sounds like a lot, you say? But wait! It’s also a love story because Maali’s deepest attachments to his longtime friend Jaki and his closeted boyfriend DD are a liability after death, and to have any chance at entering The Light, he has to let them go.

Whether or not Karunatilaka pulls all this off depends entirely on you. For me, it was a page-turner. It also delivers one of the best uses of the second-person narrator I’ve ever read—exploring the dissociation of a soul split from a body: “You felt yourself split into the you and the I, and then into the many yous and the infinite Is that you have been before and will be again.” 

My only frustration is the language. The prose lands somewhere in the vicinity of Junot Díaz with its energy, swagger, and street smarts. Sometimes it’s perfect. But sometimes it yanked me out of the story. Occasional sentences resemble phonics readers or undergrads’ first attempts at fiction: “He locked your jaws with his paws” or “corpulent Cassim contemplates the ascent” or “The van jerks and the goons grumble.” Unfortunately, the alliteration runs deep throughout the novel—figures float and flutter and apparently do anything that begins with an “f.” Maybe this is just a crossroads where North American English and Sri Lankan English collide in a fiery crash, or maybe readers accustomed to South Asian Englishes would also flinch at these flourishes (see what I did there?). 

But if that’s really all I can criticize, it’s nothing much. Karunatilaka gives us nearly 400 pages of political intrigue, war, and romance among both the dead and the living—with a defiantly gay narrator and Buddhist underpinnings. Is it messy? Of course. But it is also a romp through a blood-soaked era that somehow manages to be life-affirming. And, to quote Maali, that’s not nothing.

Buy a copy of Karunatilaka’s explosive novel here


Featured Photo by Amelie


Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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