The judges described Karunatilaka’s book, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, as an afterlife noir that showed ‘deep humanity’.
Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka has been named the winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction for his second book The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, about a war photographer murdered in the country’s civil war.
Karunatilaka received a trophy from Queen Consort Camilla at a ceremony on Monday night in London. It was the English language literary award’s first in-person ceremony since 2019. The 47-year-old author also gets a 50,000 pound ($56,700) prize.
Set in the Sri Lanka of 1990, Seven Moons follows gay war photographer and gambler Maali Almeida after he wakes up dead and decides to find out who was responsible.
Time is of the essence for Maali, who has “seven moons” to reach out to loved ones and guide them to hidden photos he has taken depicting the brutality of the island’s sectarian conflict.
“My hope for Seven Moons is this… that in the not-so-distant future… that it is read in a Sri Lanka that has understood that these ideas of corruption and race-baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work,” he said.
“I hope it’s in print in 10 years but if it is, I hope it’s written in [a] Sri Lanka that learns from its stories, and that Seven Moons will be in the fantasy section of the bookshop … next to the dragons, the unicorns [and] will not be mistaken for realism or political satire,” he added.
Karunatilaka is the second Sri Lankan to win the award, following Michael Ondaatje’s victory in 1992 for The English Patient, which was later turned into a blockbuster film.
Neil MacGregor, who chaired the judging panel, called Seven Moons “an afterlife noir that dissolves the boundaries not just of different genres, but of life and death, body and spirit, east and west”.
The judges said it was a “whodunnit and a race against time, full of ghosts, gags and a deep humanity”.
All but one of the six shortlisted authors attended the ceremony, the first in-person Booker event since 2019.
Englishman Alan Garner, who turned 88 on Monday, appeared virtually.
Other shortlisted authors included Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo, American writers Percival Everett and Elizabeth Strout and Irish author Claire Keegan.
The Booker was first awarded in 1969 and is the United Kingdom’s foremost literary award for novels written in English. Last year the award went to South African Damon Galgut, while previous winners have included Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel.
Monday’s ceremony featured a special tribute to Mantel, who died last month aged 70.
She was the first British writer — and first woman — to win the prize twice with the first two novels in her Wolf Hall trilogy.