A Haunting Ride

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
By Shehan Karunatilaka
386 pp. Sort of Books. £20.

Do you remember the 1989 romantic comedy “Chances Are”? It’s about a happily married man who gets struck by a car and whoosh! finds himself in a glowing waiting room in an afterlife populated by lab-coated technicians fussing over new arrivals. Desperate to return to his pregnant wife, the man is asked where he’d like to be reborn and whoosh! is reincarnated as Robert Downey Jr. Except, one problem, the afterlife’s technicians forgot to inject him with a drug to make sure he doesn’t remember anything about his previous life.

I found myself repeatedly coming back to “Chances Are” while reading “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,” despite the fact that Shehan Karunatilaka’s Booker Prize-winning novel is decidedly not a romantic comedy. Aside from that, there are enough similarities that I wondered if Karunatilaka had been inspired so much by that Robert Downey Jr. vehicle that he decided to write his own version of it, albeit set in a very volatile Sri Lanka in the 1980s.

This isn’t the sort of book I’d ordinarily read. A month ago, I was visiting the lovely seaside town of Whitstable, England when I was pulled (as if by an otherworldly presence) into the glorious Harbour Books. “Seven Moons” caught my eye and, the moment after I picked it up, the two bookshop attendants called over to tell me, in a brilliantly booksy bit of British banter, what a wonderful read it was.

Well, I suppose I have to get it now, don’t I? I thought to myself, though in reality I was just a few pounds away from getting a free tote bag (free with a £60 purchase) and this dual recommendation provided me with all the impetus I needed.

Disclaimer: Other than its being an island nation off the tip of India, I know nothing about Sri Lanka, nevermind Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Even when reading the book jacket I found this to be something of a deterrant, and there were times when reading — particularly in the early pages — where I felt my appreciation of the novel was somewhat hampered by my lack of knowledge of its setting.

The Tamil Tigers, aka the LTTE … yes, I’d heard of them, but they’re just one of a number of warring factions featured here, and all the acronyms and corresponding violence threatened to overwhelm the text for me a couple of times but, ultimately, maybe that chaos is sort of the point. If nothing else, it’s a very literary way of echoing the confusion and horror of what it must have been like to live during those very dark times.

Lack of familiarity with the subject matter aside, I found myself really pulled into the story, not because I was especially eager to unravel the mystery at the heart of it (Who Killed Maali Almeida?) but because the afterlife Karunatilaka has created here is so richly imagined and fun to play around in!

For having been initially wary of taking on a book set in a (literally) haunted Sri Lanka, it’s ironic that I ultimately found myself more in love with the setting of the story than the story itself. The plot works because it succeeds in giving you a personal tour of a dark, unfamiliar place. Whether at the theme park or at the hands of a talented author, that’s what the best thrill rides do.


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