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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Shehan Karunatilaka

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To purchase The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Title: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
Author: Shehan Karunatilaka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2022
Length: 386 pages
Availability: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida - US
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida - UK
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida - Canada
Chats with the Dead - India
  • Previously published, in a different version, as Chats with the Dead (2020)
  • Booker Prize, 2022

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Our Assessment:

B : effective portrait of Sri Lanka ca. 1983-1990, but too much here too adrift

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 18/8/2022 .
The Guardian . 9/8/2022 Tomiwa Owolade
The Hindu* . 15/2/2020 Pasan Jayasinghe
Literary Review . 10/2022 Frank Lawton
The NY Times Book Rev. A 30/10/2022 Randy Boyagoda
The Spectator C 10/9/2022 Nicholas Lezard
Sydney Morning Herald A+ 26/10/2022 Helen Elliott
The Telegraph B 3/8/2022 Nikhil Krishnan
The Times . 2/9/2022 James Walton
TLS A+ 16/9/2022 Kate Mcloughlin

(* review of Chats with the Dead)

  From the Reviews:
  • "It has bite, brilliance and sparkle, though readers may sometimes wish for steady illumination rather than another pyrotechnic burst. Maali’s posthumous pilgrimage shows him “how ugly this beautiful land is”. Still, the furious comedy in Mr Karunatilaka’s novel never courts despair." - The Economist

  • "The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is written in the second person, which gives the narrative a slightly distancing effect, but it’s compensated for by the sardonic humour. (...) The scenarios are often absurd -- dead bodies bicker with each other -- but executed with a humour and pathos that ground the reader. Beneath the literary flourishes is a true and terrifying reality: the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. Karunatilaka has done artistic justice to a terrible period in his country’s history." - Tomiwa Owolade, The Guardian

  • "The ensuing novel is an impressive accomplishment that manages to be a tighter expression of his distinctive prose and an even more glaring mirror of Sri Lanka. (...) The weight of these matters is balanced by Karunatilaka’s prose, which is sardonic and knowingly vulgar, trading moments of both dark absurdity and lowbrow yet self-aware humour. This especially comes through in the keen observations of Colombo and Sri Lankan culture the book throws up, as well as in the sordid thrills Maali pursues as a closeted gay man in the country." - Pasan Jayasinghe, The Hindu*

  • "Shehan Karunatilaka’s new novel, the winner of the 2022 Booker Prize, audaciously reimagines modern Sri Lankan experience for Anglophone readers otherwise accustomed to the lyric gravitas and cosmopolitan textures of fiction by Michael Ondaatje, Michelle de Kretser, Romesh Gunesekera and, more recently, Anuk Arudpragasam. (...) Karunatilaka’s book is supremely confident in its literary heterodoxy, and likewise in offering idiosyncratic particularities of ordinary Sri Lankan life well beyond the serious matters of politics, history, religion and mythology. (...) But readers everywhere will find in such demanding specificity what we all seek from great books: the exciting if overwhelming fullness of an otherwise unknown world told on its own terms, and that frisson of unexpected identification and understanding that comes from working to stay in it." - Randy Boyagoda, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The strengths are its powerful and precise prose style; the weaknesses are those that are typical of magical realism -- a succession of impossibilities that have to be assented to before the reader can get on. I found myself asking: does this make Dante a magical realist ? (...) (I)t is a smorgasbord of ghouls from which you can, with difficulty, pick out the bones of the recent, awful history of the place -- if you are not allergic to magical realism. But I’m afraid the genre is not for me. It is Just Like Here But Worse." - Nicholas Lezard, The Spectator

  • "Original, sensational, imaginative, political, mysterious, romantic: it is obvious why this novel won the prize. It also has a manic strum that, along with the vivid chambers-of-horror -- not confined to the underworld -- will cause readers to put it down and not return. But it will have lasting effect. It has the bleak power of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. And unlike that great book it is relentlessly, shockingly funny." - Helen Elliott, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The pages are full of untranslated Sinhalese curses and half-explained refer­ences to Sri Lankan political history. It contains a good deal of what might be called philosophy, but very much of the public-house variety. As with other political satirists, setting the book in the 1980s is probably a deniable way of commenting on Sri Lanka in the 2020s. (...) The sheer excess on every page makes it hard to take in the moments of quiet truthfulness. But the supernatural conceit, often a distraction, produces moments of real poignancy." - Nikhil Krishnan, The Telegraph

  • "(A) rollicking magic-realist take on a recent bloody period in Sri Lankan history, set in an unpeaceful afterlife. It is messy and chaotic in all the best ways. It is also a pleasure to read: Karunatilaka writes with tinder-dry wit and an unfaltering ear for prose cadences. (...) Not a word is ill chosen, and its biting satire is sustained from first to last. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida burns unremittingly both with its love of country and with anger for what that country has endured." - Kate Mcloughlin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida opens in Sri Lanka in 1990 with the title character having just died and finding himself in an 'In Between'-world. He has seven days to navigate it in order to reach 'The Light' -- this first-step purgatory apparently not being the kind of place you want to get stuck in for eternity. ('The Light', he's told, is basically: "Whatever You Need It To Be" -- in any case, definitely a preferable final destination.) Everyone who comes here is given this period: "To recall past lives. And then, to forget". (As he learns, this is actually Maali's thirty-ninth death, but he only really recalls this most recent life -- though not the death that ended it, the nature of which is one of the puzzles he tries to figure out in his allotted seven days.)
       The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is narrated in the second person, pushing the reader into Maali's place during his week-long post-mortem odyssey. With civil war breaking out in 1983, the Sri Lanka of the 1980s was a place of considerable political violence and terror, with all the sides guilty of horrific acts. Maali was a photographer, and he specialized in capturing these scenes; as someone sums up the kind of work he did for them: "Scenes from the war zone. Burned homes, dead children. You know, the usual". He has a knack for it, and is drawn to it:

     None of the other photographers lasted more than two massacres. Most couldn't stomach the gore and many were averse to the high risk and average pay. But you were hooked.
       Maali was a good photographer -- "a ham and a hack, but you knew how to frame a shot". But he made life hard for himself in other respects as well, not least with his gambling habit; he was also homosexual -- and both very active sexually as well as deeply closeted in a disapproving society. As the narrator sums up:
     This is a fair assessment of your skills. Gambling D-, Fixing C+, Screwing B-, Photography A+.
       Maali had a box with five envelopes of photographs under his bed -- and: "He said they could topple the government"; indeed, as someone says about them: "If these are seen, this country will burn again". Among other things, the contents could help identify -- and possibly bring to justice -- participants in the massacres of 1983.
       Maali hopes to communicate with the still-living -- his friends and acquaintances -- to help them find the box and bring its contents into the open. Being dead complicates matters: he's a kind of spirit still very much moving about in the familiar world, but the living aren't really aware of his continued existence in this form. (Indeed, those he leaves behind are uncertain as to his fate, unclear whether he is simply out of touch or has actually died, and even as he tries to connect with them they try to figure out what happened to him.)
       As one of Maali's guides explains to him about the rules in this in-between world, there are: "No rules, sir. Like Down There. You make up your own". So Maali flits and stumbles about among the dead and living -- aware always of the ticking clock and looming deadline (if not entirely sure of just how terrible missing it would be). His death and the photographs (and then their negatives) set off a chain of events in the world of the still-living too -- much of it murky and ambiguous, a world where morality continues to be sorely tested. Typically, a policeman at one points asks: "Are we investigating this ? Or covering this up ?"
       Karunatilaka plays with the spirit-/real-world divide entertainingly -- including with a kind of medium who lives in: "a blurry world" and can make for a connection between the two -- but at a cost. The most terrible things Maali witnessed and experienced are largely in the past, but the present feels almost constantly threatening as well, both for Maali in the In Between world and those he left behind in the real one. The sense of time winding down and the suspense that comes with it is handled quite well, both in Maali's case and that of the still-living who understand the significance of the photographs and negatives he left behind.
       As one character observes of Sri Lanka: "This land is cursed", and there seems no escaping that -- not least because, also: "Nothing in this country is apolitical". Karunatilaka presents a dark, vivid portrait of the nation and its recent history. Maali is a fairly effective protagonist as gambling outsider and eyewitness to much that many would prefer hushed up, though given that Karunatilaka writes in the second person it's surprising that he doesn't thrust the reader even more forcefully into Maali's depths.
       Colorful -- often darkly so --, the novel and its characters also feel adrift -- arguably, in no small part appropriately so. Uncertainty and longing pervade much of it, a civil war-torn Sri Lanka providing little hold, much less stability; indeed, the book's conclusion has Maali literally leap into what amounts to the unknown .....
       Despite it's clear plot-line -- even presented in seven 'Moon'-chapters (and then one concluding chapter), and with various mysteries of sorts to be solved and dealt with (the photographs and negatives; what actually happened to Maali) -- The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a bit loose and baggy. There's a good deal of colorful invention here, and the humor, if often bitter-edged, helps keep the novel from getting too dark, but it doesn't entirely come off.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 August 2022

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The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida: Reviews (* review of Chats with the Dead): Shehan Karunatilaka: Other books by Shehan Karunatilaka under review:
  • Chinaman (US title: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew)
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka was born in 1975.

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© 2022 the complete review

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