It’s not appropriate to call the most recent Booker Prize-winning novel ‘minor’ literature, but it’s only thanks to the great taste of this year’s judges that Shehan Karunatilaka’s unusual, rule-breaking novel will have a true chance to find the audience it deserves. It’s a powerfully strange story that breaks most so-called rules around plot, setting and characterization, and it reads like a dream. Or a nightmare, depending on your position.
It’s 1990 and Maali Almeida is a photojournalist in Sri Lanka, working for whoever will give him enough cash to pay his gambling debts. Or at least he was. As the book begins, he comes to the horrifying realisation that he is dead. Well, murdered. Everyone in the afterlife in Colombo – which is quite busy at the moment, thanks to the civil war and various acts of terrorism – must go through all eternity in whatever form their corpse found its final repose, so there’s quite a bit to get used to. They also have no time to recover from the shock before learning they have seven ‘moons’ (nights) to wrap up whatever unfinished business they might have on earth before they have to move on. And does Maali ever have unfinished business. Who killed him, and who was responsible for his death? (Those are two different questions.) Will his best friend Jaki and his secret boyfriend DD be able to stay safe if Maali works it out? And how can he, from the beyond, direct them to find the photo negatives hidden in his flat, which could alter the entire course of the war?
Oh, and there’s a demon hunting him, too: The shadow takes the shape of a beast. It has the head of a bear and the body of a large woman. Its hair is serpents and its eyes are black from corner to corner. It bares its fangs and walks into the crowd as the Helpers in white back away. The creature growls and fills the roof with mist. You feel a chill that makes you retch. The Helpers unhand the suicides and pick up clubs.
It wears a necklace of skulls and a belt of severed fingers, but these are not what draw your gaze. It is the belly, bare and hanging over a belt of flesh. Human faces etched in them, the souls trapped within are screaming to be let out.
he beginning of the book is bewildering, which is by design; there’s a great deal of afterlife logistics (as if the sequence about afterlife bureaucracy in “Beetlejuice” was turned up to 11) as well as a crash course on the state of the Sri Lankan nation, which at the time included rampant sectarian terrorism, corrupt politicians who work only for the benefit of people in their own ethnic group, interfering foreign powers (mostly but not solely British and Americans) who run their own agendas from neighbouring tables in hotel bars, German tourists who are sometimes caught up in the violence, young queers desperate for visas to any other nation, crusading human-rights lawyers, and weary journalists who are prepared to break the law if it gets them the scoop. Among others. There’s so much going on there’s a good balance between explaining the history to readers ignorant of it, without boring anyone for whom it’s familiar. But it’s fair to say the beginning of the book is so overwhelming, on purpose, that it’s slightly tough going; on top of the plot, the acronyms and unfamiliar speaking styles (to this reader, anyway) pile up like crashed cars on a crowded freeway. But once you understand the basic outline of the political moment and get used to the way English is spoken here – which is only complicated, not difficult – the prose snaps into place, and the plot flows along at a remarkably speedy pace for so complex a story. It is broken down into small sections within each individual moon, and the narrative voice alters as needed: third-person for sections which observe Jaki, DD and various other people Maali knew, and second-person for the sections directly narrated by Maali:
You’ve always thought the voice in your head belonged to someone else. Telling you the story of your life as if it had already happened. The omniscient narrator adding a voiceover to your day. The coach telling you to stop feeling sorry and to do what you were good at. Which was winning at blackjack, seducing young peasants and photographing scary places.
It was the voice that led you to tour the war zone on five occasions, each for a different master. It was the voice that led you to casinos and alleyways and strange boys in dark jungles. And yet you wonder about that voice. If you had a spirit on your back whispering in your ear, how would you possibly know? And, even if you did, how could you separate that voice from every other whisper?
It’s all a terrific metaphor for what death does to us, both in loss and how the world reworks itself to accept the new absence. But also in how
ghouls and ghosts can manifest through our choices, either individual or collective.
The secrets of Maali’s life over the seven moons all come tumbling out – the gambling, the promiscuity, the working relationships with dangerous people, the sexual relationships with frightened ones, and his fraught relationship with his parents. The unusual second-person narrative voice becomes both intimate and distancing, which aligns with Maali’s worldview: loving and hating his country, loving and hating himself. (The necessity of guarding his sexual secrets even after his death remains sadly relatable.) The secrets of his death also require urgent exploring, about which suffice to say the violent secrets of a nation at war are brought to grisly, visceral yet not overwhelming light. Mr Karunatilaka has an eye for the telling detail, such as the dead woman in pigtails who re-enacts her suicide every night: [she] does what looks like a Fosbury Flop, which you did not think possible in a sari. The city is full of terrible smells – cigarettes, sweat, semen, unwashed bodies, blood – which reminds you how rarely odor is addressed in art. It’s all a terrific metaphor for what death does to us, both in loss and how the world reworks itself to accept the new absence. But also in how ghouls and ghosts can manifest through our choices, either individual or collective.
The complex, dangerous, sexy, overwhelming pace of life in Colombo is detailed with a combination of resignation (at how terrible everything is) and glee (that despite the terror, and the terribleness, things are still able to spark joy). For a book this full of gore, death, supernatural horror and homophobia, it is not a depressing read, which is a vanishingly rare achievement. It is a book for adults in the truest term, and it’s a delightful surprise that the Man Booker judges were able to appreciate it for what it is – a wild appreciation of life, in all its bloodsoaked glory.
Shehan Karunatilaka emerged on to the global literary stage in 2011, when he won the Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSL and Gratiaen Prize for his debut novel, Chinaman. Born in Galle, Sri Lanka, in 1975, Karunatilaka grew up in Colombo, studied in New Zealand and has lived and worked in London, Amsterdam and Singapore. He currently lives in Sri Lanka. His songs, scripts and stories have been published in Rolling Stone, GQ and National Geographic. He has worked as an advertising copywriter and played guitar in a band called Independent Square.
Sarah Manvel is the author of the comic novelette YOU RUIN IT WHEN YOU TALK (Open Pen, 2020), and is looking for an agent for her three completed full-length novels. In her spare time, she is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, primarily for criticsnotebook.com. She lives in London, without a pet, and tweets as @typewritersarah.