65 pages 2 hours read

Shehan Karunatilaka

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a novel by the Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka. It was first published in 2015 in the Indian subcontinent as Chats with the Dead. British publisher Sort Of books published The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida in 2022, an edited edition designed to be more accessible for Western audiences. This novel was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize. The literary fiction novel infuses elements of magical realism and historical fiction to capture the story of a man struggling to come to terms with his death and life during the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Karunatilaka has published three novels. He is from Colombo, Sri Lanka and now resides in England. His 2010 debut novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, also incorporates Sri Lankan culture, using cricket as a lens for narrating Sri Lankan history.

This guide refers to the 2022 edition published by W. W. Norton & Company.

Content Warning: The summaries and analyses in this study guide explore such topics as suicide, violence, war, sexual abuse, and anti-gay bias.

Plot Summary

Sri Lanka is at the start of a destructive Civil War. Ethnic groups are battling with each other, and political factions and international aid organizations join the conflict. Mass death has occurred on all sides, victimizing the entire country. Maali Almeida, a photojournalist who documents atrocities, wakes up in a registrar lobby. He is surrounded by people who look disheveled and injured. He registers with a woman named Dr. Ranee, whom he recognizes as a murdered professor. She tells him he has seven moons (one week) to find his Light. A young man named Sena interferes and brings Maali away from the office. They float through the streets of Colombo, and Sena shows Maali his corpse, discarded in a lake. Maali realizes that he is dead. Two men dismember Maali’s body and throw his head into the lake. Sena encourages Maali not to seek the Light and to use his spirit self to avenge his death.

Maali’s secret boyfriend DD, his friend Jaki, and his Amma file a missing person report with the police department. Amma bribes the police to investigate his disappearance. The detectives find the two men who dismembered Maali’s body, who reveal that they found his body in a dumpster. Next, the detectives investigate Maali’s last-known location: a seedy casino. The detectives are told that the night before his disappearance, Maali had been drinking on a balcony with a white man. The detectives figure that they can make a suspect out of the bartender, the last person who saw Maali. Then, the detectives find Elsa, an international aid worker whose cousin works with her, raising funds for victims of war. They say that Maali had recently resigned from his photography job. Elsa privately tells the detectives that Maali has a box of photographs under a bed in his home, which could be sold to the press and reveal proof of hidden atrocities. Maali follows the investigation as he learns to float against the wind.

Elsa convinces the police to let her help. She claims some of Maali’s photographs belong to her through their contract, and the police can use the others to prove abuse against the police. The detectives and Elsa raid Maali’s apartment, which he shared with DD and Jaki. DD’s father is high up in the government and interrupts the search because the detectives don’t have a signed warrant. Jaki and DD rush to Maali’s mom’s house, where they’re certain he hid the photographs. The others follow them, and DD finds the photos. They are all appalled by the violence and corruption exposed in the pictures. DD’s father called the Minister of Justice to help prevent this illegal search, so the Minister appears. He sees the photographs and takes them with him.

Despite the warning of the Helpers, a group of ghosts that helps new ghosts find the Light, Maali is certain that he must not find the Light before his hidden photographs are revealed. He makes a deal with Sena’s boss, the Crow Man, to learn how to whisper to the living in exchange for certain favors. Maali wants to be able to whisper to Jaki so he can tell her the location of his negatives.

Maali’s skeletal remains are found, and his death is confirmed. The Minister of Justice and an Army Colonel plot to kidnap Elsa so they can interrogate her for information she might have learned from Maali. Elsa escapes and makes it back to Toronto.

Sena makes a deal with a demon and riles up ghosts to avenge their deaths. Sena and his followers cause a disastrous car accident, killing the two men who confiscated Sena and Maali’s bodies as well as innocent bystanders.

Dr. Ranee teaches Maali how to enter people’s dreams and whisper to them. He enters Jaki’s dream and shows her where the negatives are located: Taped to two music records. By his fifth moon, Maali’s memories return, and he recalls the night of his death. He had been excited to quit his jobs with their various seedy bosses and escape Sri Lanka with DD. But Maali gave in to his desires and hooked up with the casino’s bartender on the sixth-floor balcony. One of Maali’s last blurry memories is DD charging at him.

Maali’s friends at the Arts Centre develop his photographs and make a public exhibition, achieving Maali’s goal. Sena still wants Maali to join his army of vengeful spirits. He brings Maali to a decrepit building called the Palace, where people are tortured, interrogated, and murdered. Sena wants to avenge the hundreds of people killed by a notorious torturer called the Mask. The Mask has Jaki in custody.

Maali makes a deal with the Mahakali, a powerful demon: He will forfeit his soul if the Mahakali gives him the power to whisper to the living. Maali whispers to DD and Detective Cassim to help get Jaki out of the Palace. Cassim releases Jaki to DD while DD’s father, Stanley, looks for Major Raja and Colonel Wijeratne regarding his niece’s incarceration. Major Raja and Colonel Wijeratne are in a meeting with Drivermalli, who has been captured by the spirits and given a bomb. On behalf of the Mahakali, Sena and his followers yell at Drivermalli to detonate the bomb. Maali yells at them all to stop, drawing the attention of Colonel Wijeratne’s guardian demon. Drivermalli detonates the bomb, killing himself, Stanley, and Major Raja. The guardian demon saves Colonel Wijeratne. Many other people in the office building die. To punish him for intervening, the Mahakali attempts to eat Maali’s spirit. The guardian demon saves Maali in return for helping him save Wijeratne.

Maali escapes to the River of Births, where he meets with Dr. Ranee to find his Light. Once in the River of Births, Maali realizes that Stanley killed him. Stanley offered Maali money to stay away from DD and didn’t approve of their relationship. When he refused, Stanley beat Maali to death with his camera.

Dr. Ranee offers him five drinks to choose from, and he picks one that will reincarnate him where he’s meant to be. Maali’s first reincarnation is as a Helper. He saves many spirits by helping them get to the Light. His photography exhibit was less successful than he had hoped, and many people steal his compromising photographs before Colonel Wijeratne finally shuts it down. Maali lets go of his photographs and finds peace in the fact that Jaki and DD are still alive. He decides to be reincarnated again. 

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