Shehan Karunatilaka with his Booker Prize-winning novel.

First NZ review of Booker winner

Just as many bookstores are waiting for Shehan Karunatilaka’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida to arrive, so too is the author waiting to settle in New Zealand. ReadingRoom broke the news last week that Karunatilaka is on his way to return to live here. (Born in Sri Lanka, in 1975, he boarded at Whanangui College, and got a business diploma at Massey University. He’s since lived in London and Singapore.) According to a close source, who has just had a baby and is therefore in such a state of tranquil bliss that she is incapable of spreading a falsehood, Karunatilaka has completed the immigration paperwork and is awaiting the stamp of approval. Genius ought to be made welcome: I can report that The Seven Moons appears to be absolutely dazzling.

Until the book becomes widely available in bookstores nationwide (some stores have yet to receive their orders for  the Booker shortlist, announced in early September),  the best you can do is read the free sample on Amazon. I read the free sample on Amazon. It’s the opening 67 pages. No, not enough to know if the book is a resounding success, but enough to know The Seven Moons is no slow burn – it’s an instant burst of dark, startling joy, a feat of wild imagining, funny and lyrical, horrific and captivating.

It’s set in the afterlife. Karunatilaka admitted in a recent interview that he was gutted when George Saunders got in ahead of him with a similar idea – just as Karunatilaka was writing The Seven Moons, Saunders published Lincoln in the Bardo, his acclaimed 2017 novel that imagined characters looming in an intermediate space between life and rebirth. The parallels end there. Karunatilaka’s vision is totally original. His protagonist Maali Almeida is a photojournalist; he tells you exactly what he sees, like a good reporter: “Many seem dressed for a wedding, because that’s how undertakers decorate corpses. But many others are dressed in rags and confusion.”

The dead walk in this afterlife. They look like they did on earth, like their last moments – as decorated corpses in coffins, as butchered flesh. The book is set during the 1989 civil war in Sri Lanka. It was a time of atrocity and mass murder. In his column in Sunday this weekend, Brannavan Gnanalingam provided a succinct synopsis of that period of conflict in his homeland: “The book examines head-on the chaos of 1980s Sri Lanka – the July 1983 pogrom against Tamils, the Civil War, the Indian Peacekeeping Force, the brutal repression of the JVP [political party], the spate of suicide bombings that killed many innocent people, and Sri Lanka’s ingrained homophobia.”

The worst of times. But Karunatilaka takes a satirical approach, which demands a steady hand and a sense of purpose beyond the narrow limits of black humour. Karunatilaka has that purpose and that hand. Things are so shocking that you know it’s actually operating as a deeply serious book, a lament for the innocent dead.

The Booker head judge gave a pithy and very good description of The Seven Moons: “Afterlife noir.” Heaven and hell are celestial waiting rooms with elevators going up and down. The best way to get from A to B is to catch the wind. “Can you ride winds?”, asks Maali; he’s told, “Like public transport for dead people, sir.”

There are beautiful lyrical passages which entwine metaphysics with matter of brutal fact. Maali writes (in second person), “You always knew where souls had gone. The same place the flame goes when you snuff it, the same place a word goes when you say it. The mother and daughter buried under bricks in Kilinochchi, the 10 students burned on tyres in Malabe, the farmer tied to a tree with his entrails. None of them went anywhere. They went, and then they were not.”

The afterlife, though, contradicts what Maali had assumed. The dead do not rest. They roam The Inbetween of life after death. Maali has seven moons (in the afterlife, a week) to find out who killed him. He finds out how – “Sir was put in a van, beaten with a pipe. Chained in a room filled with dead people’s shit” – but a greater truth awaits him. His mission is to “give justice for all those killed”. I want to see how he gets on. I want to read the rest of it. Karunatilaka doesn’t slacken the pace or play a single bum note in the opening 67 pages; The Seven Moons looks set to be one hell of a read from a writer about to take up New Zealand residence.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka ($40) may be available in selected bookstores nationwide.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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