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Britain’s Camilla, Queen Consort, presents Booker Prizer winner Shehan Karunatilaka with the trophy for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida at the Roundhouse in London on Monday. Photo: AP

Sri Lanka’s Shehan Karunatilaka wins Booker Prize

  • The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a satirical novel set during the country’s civil war
  • Karunatilaka is the second Sri Lanka-born winner of the prestigious award, after Michael Ondaatje, who took the trophy in 1992 for The English Patient
Sri Lanka
Writer Shehan Karunatilaka won the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction on Monday for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a satirical “afterlife noir” set during Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war.

Karunatilaka, one of Sri Lanka’s leading authors, won the £50,000 (US$57,000) award for his second novel. The 47-year-old, who has also written journalism, children’s books, screenplays and rock songs, is the second Sri Lanka-born Booker Prize winner, after Michael Ondaatje, who took the trophy in 1992 for The English Patient.

Karunatilaka received the award from Camilla, Britain’s queen consort, during a ceremony at London’s Roundhouse concert hall.

The judges’ unanimous choice, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is the darkly humorous story about a deceased war photographer investigating his death and trying to ensure his life’s legacy.

Former British Museum director Neil MacGregor, who chaired the judging panel, said judges chose the book for “the ambition, the scope and the skill, the daring, the audacity and the hilarity of the execution”.

“It’s a book that takes the reader on a roller coaster journey through life and death, right to what the author describes as the dark heart of the world,” MacGregor said. “And there the reader finds to their surprise, joy, tenderness, love and loyalty.”

The winner was chosen over five other finalists: American authors Percival Everett for The Trees and Elizabeth Strout for Oh William!; Glory by Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo; Irish writer Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These; and Treacle Walker by British writer Alan Garner.

The five-member jury read 170 novels before choosing a winner. MacGregor said all the books explored the actions of individuals in a world “where fixed points are moving, disintegrating”.

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He said “what’s striking in all of them is the weight of history” – from the legacy of racism in the United States to colonialism and repression in Zimbabwe – and how that shapes the choices and actions of individuals.

“History as a player in contemporary politics is, I think, one of the things that emerges from most of the shortlist books,” MacGregor said. “Which is hardly surprising, given the current debates about history.”

“All these books show why [history] has to be taught, addressed and discussed – because otherwise we can’t understand the framework within which people have to make the big choices, the essential choices, of their lives,” he said.

Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka holds his book The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida at the Shaw Theatre in King’s Cross in London on Friday. Photo: AFP

Founded in 1969, the Booker Prize has a reputation for transforming writers’ careers. It was originally open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers but eligibility was expanded in 2014 to all novels in English published in the UK.

Last year’s winner was The Promise, by South Africa’s Damon Galgut.

The event was the first fully in-person Booker ceremony since the pre-pandemic event in 2019 and the first for long-time literacy champion Camilla since her husband became King Charles last month after the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth.

The event also included a speech from singer-songwriter Dua Lipa about her love of reading, and a reflection from writer Elif Shafak on what the attack on novelist Salman Rushdie, who was stabbed onstage in August, means for writers around the world.