THE SEVEN MOONS OF MAALI ALMEIDA by Shehan Karunatilaka – A one of a kind, unforgettable experience


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 Chinaman 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.


I’m usually not one to read award winning books, especially something like a Booker Prize because they mostly tend to be literary fiction and that’s not a genre I’m frequently looking for. But when the news of this book winning the award came about and I realized that it’s both South Asian and speculative fiction, I knew I had to give it a try. And it also felt like a big oversight on my part that I purport to support Asian/South Asian authors and books on my blog but I truly don’t remember reading anything set in Sri Lanka except a couple of short stories last year. When I finally got the audiobook from my library a couple of days ago, I just didn’t wanna wait anymore and gobbled up the whole thing in just a few hours.


I truly don’t have words to describe what kind of a book this is. It’s totally political because it’s set in the 80s with various political factions like the government and the JVP, as well as liberation movements like the LTTE – each committing horrific violence on the other side, and no one more so than the ruling party – but it’s also supernatural with the main character being dead at the beginning and his soul (or ghost maybe) trying to figure out his afterlife (and in between); as well as a murder mystery because our ghost doesn’t remember how he died.

The story might start with ghosts and afterlife but it is so rooted in its Sri Lankan setting that you can’t help but feel like you are wandering those streets with our main character, watching that horrific violence unfold in front of your eyes, and wonder what even is the point of it all. At the same time, we also get some spectacular supernatural world building, with its inspirations from Hinduism and Buddhism, making it seem both familiar and new to me – so many different creatures with their own functions, many souls who haven’t gotten over the violence of their deaths, and the souls deciding between doing something about the injustice or forgetting it all and moving on into the Light. It’s all a mix of fascinating concepts to read about and the author’s satirical writing style makes it all very engaging even when we can see that the situation is all bleak.


Our main character Maali is a gay man in a country in strife who won’t agree to either call himself a queer person and at the same time won’t agree that the situation in his homeland is hopeless. He is a photographer who has captured many horrific scenes, even at the behest of those committing the violence and using his pictures as propaganda, but he still believes that someday his photos will lead to a reckoning. It almost feels like his naïveté that such a thing is possible but when he tries hard to make his work known even from the other side of death, we are very much inclined to root for him. Through his endeavors, we get to meet the people in his life who have had significant impacts on him but whom he probably didn’t appreciate enough when alive. We also meet the many souls with their own grievances along with him, as he traverses his new reality. And along with it all, we also kind of get a mystery, with Maali trying his best to reminisce his last moments and piece together the truth of his death and the ones responsible, which when revealed did come as a shock to me.


Overall, I can just say that I was left marveling at the author’s genius both while reading and at the end. This is a book that packs a punch and takes a quite no holds barred approach to showcasing political violence, but is also funny and whimsical and sad and everything in between. The audiobook narrator Shivantha Wijesinha did a spectacular job with his voice and bringing this world to life and I’m just so glad I got to experience this book through his narration. I can’t pinpoint who will exactly appreciate this book but if you are someone who love inventive speculative fiction/ magical realism with a very realistic political setting, then this will be a great choice for you.

5 star

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