This imaginative murder mystery (400 pages) was published in October of 2022 by Penguin. The book takes you to 1990 Colombo, Sri Lanka. Melissa read The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
This is a wildly creative murder mystery mashed up with a historical novel, and it’s narrated — in the second person — by a man who’s just woken up as a ghost. The Maali Almeida of the title is having a very bad day, indeed. And it is glorious.
The opening paragraphs deliver a bitingly concise picture of what kind of man he was in life. The verdict: He was pretty sketchy. A gutsy war photographer with abysmal impulse control, he admits that he quit every game he was made to play, dumped anyone who ever saw him naked, and did many things he can’t tell anyone about. He says if he had a business card, it would read: Photographer, Gambler, Slut.
Now he finds himself in the afterlife. Or, more accurately, in the waiting room of the afterlife. An administrative office for the newly dead has a real DMV vibe about it: grouchy civil, meandering queues of bleeding, wailing, complaining people. Maali struggles to process what’s happened to him, then shouts at a jaded female clerk in a white sari that he can’t be dead. ‘This is a mistake. I don’t eat meat. I only smoke five a day.’ When that falls on deaf ears, he protests that he’s an important photographer. ‘I bear witness to crimes that no one else sees. I am needed… These are photos that will bring down governments. Photos that could stop wars.’
He eventually learns that he has seven moons - one week - to stay on Earth as a ghost before entering the Light and moving on to the next life. He could go into that Light immediately if he chose to. But he can’t release himself until he’s answered worrying questions: How was he killed? And who did it? Plus, ego-driven as ever, he’s convinced that his photos could make a difference and help stop the war, if they landed in front of the right people. So he decides to spend his precious seven moons investigating his own murder.
The author’s world-building is complete and immersive. He’s created an entire world of the In Between with rules for how it works and how physics and characters behave there — while also drawing a very vivid picture of real-life Sri Lanka and its war years. With Maali as our proxy, we experience both.
It’s a bit like a Sri Lankan version of a Christmas Carol — only instead of visitations from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, Maali is guided by a dead kid in a garbage bag cape. As Maali recreates the timeline of his last day, he encounters all manner of dead people, some who try to help, others intent on harm. Ghosts, demons, and other ghouls inhabit the In Between.
Heartbreakingly, Maali also spies on the still-alive people who live in the Down There. He watches the ‘garbage men’ collect his dead body and sees his mother bribe the cops to look into his disappearance. Most poignantly, we watch him watching his best friend Jaki and his lover Dilan mourn his death.
This can be a tough story to read. There’s brutal violence and endless corruption. But much of it is funny, too, thanks to Maali’s jaded but somehow hopeful outlook. Is dark optimism a thing? If it is, Maali has it in spades.
The scene in which the truth is revealed, when Maali finally learns how and why he was murdered, will break your heart. And/but the ending is brilliant and life-affirming and just as it should be.
The thing that makes you most Sri Lankan is not your father’s surname or the holy place where you kneel, nor the smile you plaster on your face to hide your fears. It is the knowing of other Lankans and the knowing of those Lankans’ Lankans. There are aunties, if given a surname and a school, who can pinpoint any Lankan to the nearest cousin. You have moved in circles that overlapped and many that stayed shut. You were cursed with the gift of never forgetting a name, a face, or a sequence of cards. — Shehan Karunatilaka
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