AWA Book Review
by Mandakini Arora
Book: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, 2020
Narrated entirely in the second person by a dead man, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka moves between the worlds of the living and the dead. Maali Almeida—a self-described “Photographer. Gambler. Slut.”—is dead in 1990, at the age of 45. He has seven moons, or a week in the In Between, to settle unfinished business which for him centers on a stash of photographs including incriminating pictures of the anti-Tamil violence that triggered a 26-year-long civil war (1983–2009) in Sri Lanka. His photographs, he informs a bureaucrat in the afterlife, “will bring down governments ... stop wars.”
As a spirit, Maali rides winds as public transport. He sees his corpse being cleaved for disposal at Beira Lake. He has been murdered but remembers nothing of his death. He visits his mother, whom he did not love, and the two people he did—his lover Dilan Dharmendran (DD) and DD’s cousin, Jacqueline (Jaki), who were his Colombo apartment mates. Jaki was his girlfriend in public, “a chaperone and a shield”—“You ... have a girlfriend, live with her, and sleep in the spare room with the landlord’s son.” We learn of Maali’s numerous sexual engagements with men other than DD, sometimes humorously described. A bartender, who “didn’t worry about where your hands went,” tells the policemen inquiring about Maali:
“‘He came last night.’
No pun intended, you think.
‘He was smoking when I took a fag break.’
Ha-ha, you think.”
Organized in seven sections, one for each moon, the book reads partly as a well-crafted mystery. Will Maali’s photographs see the light of day, and will his killer’s identity be revealed? Violence deployed by the government, Tamil separatists, Indian peacekeepers, and Communists, with international bodies and arms dealers in the mix, runs through the novel—“Don’t try and look for the good guys ’cause there ain’t none,” Maali once wrote to a US journalist.
I have mixed feelings about the novel. As I mourned my recently deceased mother, the colorful book cover on her bookshelf caught my eye. Could I read a story told by a dead person? Yet the book ticked a few boxes—recently published, Asian, 2022 Booker-Prize winner—so I went ahead. Though central to the novel, the goings-on in the spirit world of demons and variously mangled bodies, many of them victims of the civil war, did not appeal to me. But I was gripped by the mystery. The killer’s identity came as a shocker, as it might in a good whodunit. And I liked the love that runs through the novel alongside the violence. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, while not a light or easy read, is unique and inventive and will lend itself to interesting book club discussions.
Mandakini co-chairs the AWA Writers’ Group, which meets on the second and fourth Thursday morning of every month. She is a historian who enjoys reading and writing stories and browsing in secondhand bookstores. Read her book reviews here and on Instagram: @travelling_bookmark.