The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

I’m seven years old, maybe eight. I’m in the kitchen with my mother. She’s cooking; I’m studying a box of teabags on the kitchen dresser.  The teabags are made by Ceylon Tea and the picture on the box is strange and beautiful: pretty young women in brightly-coloured saris, blue, red, and pink, smiling among bright green tea-bushes. The sun is shining. It’s magical, a magical land that really exists, and I’m going to go there one day (that last bit I say out loud). Mum laughs. She says I’m dreaming as if I’m asleep in bed. I don’t blame her. Looking back I can see how ridiculous it must have sounded, a small girl in a tiny kitchen in a council house on a sink estate thinking she would travel to a somewhere on the other side of the world – based on nothing apart from some nice packaging.

Well, Mum, I did eventually go to the country where the tea was grown, the country formally known as Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and visited the tea plantations at Nuwara Eliya. During the in-between years Sri Lanka had become synonymous for something other than tea: civil war~, terrorism and the Tamil Tigers.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is set in Sri Lanka in 1990, during the civil war. Maali Almeida, “photographer, gambler, slut,” wakes up, hung-over, in a waiting room. He’s in a queue. Oh, and he’s dead.

Maali decides to make contact with the two people he loves most, his best friend, Jaki, and his boyfriend, DD, and lead them to his secret cache of war photographs, “photos that will bring down governments, photos that could stop wars”. He also wants to find out / remember who killed him. And he has only seven moons (“seven nights. Seven sunsets. A week…The moon is always up there even if you can’t see it.”) in which to enter “The Light” or he’ll be stuck in the In-Between, at the mercy of the soul-eating Mahakali demon. The clock is ticking…

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is part murder mystery, part delve into Sri Lanka’s troubled history, part re-imagining of the afterlife and the possibility of rebirth. It’s grisly. It’s surreal. It’s thought-provoking. It’s also (unexpectedly) very funny – if you like your humour dark, that is.

Perhaps the ultimate gallows humour (there are lots to choose from) is when Maali-deceased has a chat with three dead tourists, victims of the bombing of Air Lanka Flight 512, who drop into a posthumous exhibition of Maali’s photographs. They home in on the photo he took of the plane wreckage before they cleared the bodies. (“Eh, look Freida. It is you.”)

Maali – alive – is flawed. He’s addicted to gambling, sex and photographing atrocities and isn’t fussy about who he works for. He cheats on his boyfriend, DD, with any pretty or not-so-pretty boy who presents himself. Still, I was rooting for him every step of the way even though he was, er, already dead.

Possibly it was because dead-Maali is much nicer, more honourable. He gambles his entry into The Light to save Jaki by making a bargain with the Mahakali. “Do not be afraid of demons; it is the living we should fear. Human horrors trump anything the afterlife can conjure.” But (as gamblers know) there’s always a chance of winning even when the odds are stacked against you.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida won the 2022 Booker Prize. It’s easy to see why. Disturbing, thrilling, wonderful…I could run out of adjectives and still not describe this book.

Rating: **** One of the best books I’ve read this year

   ~ Civil war began in Sri Lanka in 1983 and lasted for 25 years, ending in May 2009 when the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers. I visited in March 2018. A state of emergency was declared in Kandy literally minutes before my place touched down in Colombo. Our tour guide (understandably) down-played it; BBC World News was largely silent. The few of us who were not-tour-sheep and wanted to find out what was going on tuned into Al Jaeera. It turned out Muslim shops had been burnt out by Sinhalese Buddhists after a Sinhalese lorry driver was killed by a group of Muslim men following a road rage incident.  The Sri Lankan Government (understandably, given Sri Lanka’s history) came down hard. Oh, people, why can’t we just love one another?   

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