March 12, 2023 (LBO) – I am not a book reviewer. I am probably not even what one would really consider well read. However, during covid, I finally broke a long dry spell of not finishing a book. Since then I thankfully find the reading habit has come back to me, upgrading my mind like never before.
The author of the book I’m writing about, Shehan Karunatilaka, would hopefully excuse me if this seems a bit amateur, but I thought it might prove useful to readers of LBO, who might not be the natural audience of this fascinating novel.
I, like almost everyone else in Sri Lanka, was astonished to hear that the book won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2022, the second time a Sri Lankan born person has won the award. The first being the world renown author Michael Ondaatje in 1992 for The English Patient, later made into an Oscar winning film.
I was also intrigued to learn that Karunatilaka was a past pupil of S. Thomas’ Preparatory school, and Interestingly enough Michael Ondaatje was a past pupil of S. Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia. My kids go to Prep at the moment, and I was glad to point out with pride the achievements of a past pupil.
Enough with the backstory! Let me tell you what I thought about The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by: Shehan Karunatilaka.
Where does one begin. I guess it’s good to begin with some of the historical backdrop. The story takes place during the time of the JVP insurrection and civil war against the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Interestingly enough, Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost also traverses that time period, and after reading The Seven Moons, I am eager to read Anil’s Ghost again.
Speaking to some who have started to read the book, and put it back down before completion, I think some people are turned off by the subject matter of the historical time period and the complex sexuality of some of the characters.
Many are put off by some of the unflattering truths in Sri Lanka. They don’t want to look at the serious wounds our nation has ingrained in its history or flaws in its culture, or visit complex topics of sexuality.
However, I must encourage the reader to continue on. Even if one may feel uncomfortable, if one can power on, the book takes hold of you like few books can, and takes one’s thoughts to ideas which they may have not spent much time exploring.
The second uncomfortable subject that the book explores in death. I must say that I have never thought about death like it is described in this novel, and I was awestruck by it. One comes to the realisation that we really have no idea what happens after death, and this author has crafted an extremely creative world, which will cause anyone to reexamine their beliefs.
The third major backdrop in the book is Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. You get the cold hard truth here, seeing the country and its characters in their full unvarnished glory.
First the places: from Galle Face, Kanatte, Casinos, familiar neighbourhoods in the city, Otters, the Beira Lake and many more. Second the people: The photo journalist, the politician, the security forces, the foreigners, the poor, rich, old, young, gay and straight.
I hate spoilers, so I am not going to say much more. However, I must say that every Sri Lankan should read this book. It is a picture of our people and our country with all the flaws, but also with the complexity and colour which makes this such a fascinating place to live.
I can see how this book won the Booker Prize. It is that good, and it really makes the reader explore the core mysteries of life. Why are we here and what is life really about? What does all this really mean? What is the truth?
The book is a work of art. I expect the author, like his predecessor Michael Ondaatje, to have a globally successful career as a writer. I can’t wait to read his next book.