Skip to content

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida 

Shehan Karunatilaka

Sort of Books (2022)

Review by Suzanne Harrington


This is the Booker Prize-winning story of a queer Sri Lankan photojournalist who is also a gambler, an atheist and a ‘slut’ (his word). Oh, and he’s dead. The pacy action and rapid-fire dialogue – which does not let up, even momentarily, and is conveyed throughout in the second person – take place over seven moons (a week), and is set both in the In Between and Down There, as our highly unreliable narrator dives between worlds. Let me try to explain.   

Maali Almeida wakes up dead in 1990. He’s been murdered and is at the bottom of the Beira Lake in Colombo, but can’t remember who did it: ‘You see a head that once belonged to you placed in a siri-siri bag and hurled into the lake. You see limbs you once owned packed into boxes.’ He has a week to locate some hidden boxes of his photos that will expose the internecine horrors that engulfed Sri Lanka in the 1980s, and to find out who killed him, before his access to the next life – The Light – is permanently closed off.  

There are many suspects around his death – Sinhalese army officers, Tamil Tiger generals, arms dealers, spies. His cache of photos is sought by government officials, Tamil Tigers, JVP communists, Indian peacekeepers and various black marketeers. Almeida provides a who’s-who – with some cynicism – of the LTTE, JVP, UNP, STF, IPKF, UN, RAW, and CIA, adding, ‘It’s not that complicated, my friend. Don’t try and look for the good guys ‘cause there ain’t none.’ He notes how ‘Some countries import their savages. We breed ours.’

So far, so John le Carré on acid. Except the action is mostly happening in a Dantean spirit world, the In Between. We first meet Maali, here, in a bureaucratic limbo, where the bloodied dead, from poisoned Tamil child soldiers to murdered academics, form disorderly queues. The dead also move unseen among the living, making Colombo twice as crowded, as Maali navigates new rules and new parameters on his seven-moon quest – the dead can travel only to places they have been when they were still alive, using the wind as ‘public transport’.    

The In Between also contains mythical creatures like the Mahakali, with her necklace of severed heads, plus a talking leopard, and dead people flapping around in bin-liners. Amongst the living is Maali’s secret boyfriend, DD, and his best friend, Jaki, both of whom are wondering where Maali – caustic, irreverent, adventurous – could be.  Elvis, Freddie Mercury and Shakin’ Stevens also feature. 

Shehan Karunatilaka offers us a complete universe, audacious, original and perfectly formed. To access this world is a bit like running at a climbing wall – you might need a few attempts to get a solid grip on it. Its characters are sharp and funny, their droll gallows humour a singular defence against a backdrop of carnage and genocide, as the novel incorporates magical realism, twisting suspense, politics, spirituality and metaphysics, closeted queerness, and an excess of flawed humanity. It’s never dull. You come away appalled, exhilarated, perhaps mildly confused, but knowing that you have just read something quite extraordinary.