Shehan Karunatilaka won the prestigious Booker Prize on Monday for his novel “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida”.
Set against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” is loosely inspired by Karunatilaka’s own childhood in Colombo in the 1980s. The novel chronicles the journey of a war photographer, Maali, who wakes up dead at the start of the novel, in a celestial “afterlife”. He has “seven moons” to solve the mystery of his death and is determined to unveil photographs that could expose the horrors of the insurrections in Sri Lanka.
“We admired enormously the ambition and the scope and the skill, the daring, the audacity and the hilarity of the execution,” said Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum and chair of this year’s judges. “It’s a book that takes the reader on a roller coaster journey through life and death.”
Britain’s Queen Consort presented the award to the 47-year-old author, who was selected from a shortlist of six authors that represented five nationalities and four continents.
“I thought, this is a useful way of exploring this grim subject matter, but having a bit of lightness and a bit of playfulness also,” Karunatilaka said in a video posted on the Booker website.
Karunatilaka, now based in Colombo after living across Europe and the Asia Pacific, is regarded as one of Sri Lanka’s greatest authors. As a full-time advertising copywriter, he carves out time in the mornings to write his novels. “Seven Moons” is his second book. Karunatilaka’s first, Chinaman, won him the 2012 Commonwealth book prize.
According to the Booker Prize website, most of the shortlist’s books are inspired by real-life events. The shortlist also includes the oldest author nominated, at the age of 88, and the shortest book ever recognized in the prize’s history — at 116 words.
The View From the US
“The Trees” by Percival Everett, also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was also inspired by real-life events.
Set in Money, Mississippi, a series of gruesome killings call back to the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Throughout the novel, characters are summoned to help investigate the puzzlingly similar murders where white victims are found alongside the bodies of lynched Black or Asian American men.
The book tackles racism and police violence through a biting sense of humor. In a review in The Guardian, Jake Arnott writes: “The genius of this novel is that in an age of reactionary populism it goes on the offensive, using popular forms to address a deep political issue as page-turning comic horror. It’s a powerful wake-up call, as well as an act of literary restitution.”