Click here for the audio version of this review or scroll to the bottom

‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ by Shehan Karunatilaka (2022 Booker Prize winner) follows Maali Almeida, a Sri Lankan war photographer who is casually in the closet, not like ‘casually in the closet’ is a phrase, but I say ‘casually’ because the protagonist has no qualms about making out with men in public places but lies as easily about having a girlfriend when questioned about his orientation… where were we? Yes, Maali Almeida – queer war photographer, fixer, risk-taker, liar, gambler, and now a specter. It’s 1990, Almeida is dead, he cannot remember how and has seven days to solve his murder, after which he can ‘pass over’ into the light and not be stuck in the afterlife. So, the story is set in a place called ‘the in between’, where souls find themselves after dying, and not very surprisingly, the place is just as bureaucratic as the living world. Dead souls must line up at counters to start the process of passing on completely and they are expected to finish that process by seven moons, if not, they could be stuck in between forever.  

The book is a supernatural thriller/satire, generously sprinkled with Sri Lankan politics, folklore, religious beliefs, and queer identity. Like a good mystery plot, there are multiple suspects and red herrings and readers will keep theorizing about who killed Maali Almeida. The freelance photographer was in possession of explosively incriminating war photos that a lot of people would kill to get their hands on. From powerful ministers, shady undertakers, activists, journalists, even the military… Maali Almeida has a long list of suspects who wanted him dead.  

While gripping for most parts, the second half gets a little tedious, the story begins to drag its feet over the last few chapters. There are so many elements stuffed in that it can make the average reader’s head spin a little. It did mine for sure. Took me a few days to finish the novel, because the information and character overload would make me feel mentally exhausted after a bunch of chapters. Those who aren’t too fond of excessive politics in their fiction might even want to wash their hands off this novel midway. That said, author Shehan Karunatilaka does slip in a quick guide to the Sri Lankan war to familiarize foreign readers with what was happening in the country in the 80s and 90s. As you read along, you will know exactly who the LTTE and the JVP are, their motivations, goals, and their beef with the ruling government. We also get quick little explainers on all the supernatural beings that appear through the stories.

The author pours in most of his effort in the politics of war, it’s the personal equations of Maali Almeida that leave a more lasting impact in the novel than his professional/political altercations. So, the two characters who are most likeable in ‘Seven Moons of Maali Alemeida’ are his best-friend Jaaki and lover DD. Jaaki is young, fearless, and impulsive; while DD is more uptight, serious, and diplomatic and despite their polar-opposite personalities, if their love for Maali could be measured tangibly, it would probably be a tie.  Maali’s ghost relies on Jaaki and DD to help unravel his murder mystery, although he also has ample help from crazy spirits and a blind old human who can communicate with the dead.

What really stood out most for me in the novel was the contemporary nature of the language. I really liked how Shehan’s sentences were simple to read; the dialogues felt colloquial and real, not flowery literary spiel. So even though it wasn’t a page-turner for me, the straightforward prose made it easier to read and made things seem less surreal.

It’s a 3.5/5 from me. Definitely worth checking out once.

By Sneha Jaiswal (Twitter | Instagram)