Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka


Sort of Books, 2022
385 pp


Not too far into the first chapter I realized that this book and I were going to get along just fine, and I was right.  To put it bluntly, I effing loved this book and have been telling everyone about it. 

  The author sets his story in 1990, and as it opens,  the main character Maali Almeida wakes up (as he believes)  "hungover" to find himself in an "endless waiting room" not knowing how he got there.  He is sure that he's hallucinating, having a "trippy dream" from the "silly pills" given to him by his friend Jaki, but he's actually awoken in the afterlife where he is standing in a queue.  Evidently it is as completely disorganized as any typical earthly bureaucracy, with plenty of people complaining and the office "short-staffed and looking for volunteers."   The woman who seems to be checking him in hands him a dried printed palm leaf, telling him that he needs to get his ears checked, his "deaths counted," his "sins coded" and his "moons registered," and that he (along with everyone else coming in that day) has "seven moons."  Here seven moons equates to seven days, rather than the typically-understood idea of moons as months;  Almeida is also handed a checklist of things to be taken care of before he can enter "The Light," which is, as the woman notes, "Whatever You Need It To Be."  That is the short answer; later he will learn that all who come here to "wander the In Between" have his or her allotted moons "To recall past lives. And then, to forget."  For some remaining in the In Between, however, "forgetting cures nothing," believing that "Wrongs must be remembered."  

Very briefly, largely because I'm so behind here,  in 1990, Sri Lankans were in the thick of that country's civil war which had begun in 1983 and didn't end until 2009.   It was a violent, horrific time, with death squads everywhere and scores of people being murdered or disappeared, many never to surface again.  Maali  Almeida is a photographer who had a complicated life, as noted at the beginning when he talks about what his business card might have said about him:  "Maali Almeida: Photographer.  Gambler. Slut."  He had lost lots of money at the casinos, was (as quoted in the dustjacket blurb) a sort of outcast "closet gay"  in love with his friend DD (although he sleeps around on his many travels) and more importantly,  he  had been witness to the terror and the carnage through his work as a fixer for various groups including politicians, army officers, NGOs, the press, and other dubious clients. He figured that by working on all sides, he would be seen as favoring none of them, a strategy that in hindsight, obviously didn't work out well for him. He had also taken a number of photographs that as he had once told his friends, could "topple the government," now sitting in envelopes in a box under his bed.  These photos are incriminating to the point that if seen, "this country will burn again," but he had hoped that by making them public they might bring some sort of accountability and judgment, especially against those who participated in the 1983 massacres and other atrocities, or quite possibly even end the conflict.   Part of what Maali needs  to accomplish during his seven-moon span  is to somehow have his closest friends DD and Jaki   take out and exhibit these photos publicly, but there are certain constraints in place that make it difficult for him to make contact directly with the living, so he has to learn to rely on the dead (and in one case, a creepy medium linking both worlds) to help him in his task.   But that's not all -- he also wants to solve the mystery of his own death.  As time starts to tick down,  another mission is added to this lineup -- he will somehow need to protect his friends who, in the aftermath of Maali's photos, get caught up in a chain of events putting their lives in jeopardy.

This is a book I just could not stop reading, and the way the author structured his story I thought was absolute genius.  It is a mix of historical fiction, humor and political satire in which the author not only exposes the horrors of these dark years, but also through the many ghosts with whom Maali Almeida speaks, imagines what those who died during this conflict might say if only they had a voice, making me  wish that the book's original title, Chats With the Dead would have been retained.  It is also part ghost story and part whodunit, for me an unbeatable combination.  As seen in both the afterlife and in earthly life, the novel also speaks to those in positions of power who put their own self interests ahead of everything else, making it a timely read for sure. It's one of the most original books I've had the pleasure to have read in a long while, and most certainly a book I can recommend.  

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Nightcrawling, by Leila Mottley


Knopf, 2022
271 pp


Nightcrawling is author Leila Mottley's novel debut,  a book she started writing in her teens, set in Oakland, California.   At seventeen, she says in the Author's Note at the end of the novel, she was contemplating what it meant to be "vulnerable, unprotected, and unseen," and that she wanted to write a story that "would reflect the fear and danger that comes with black womanhood and the adultification of black girls..."  Her main character is Kiara Johnson, and the novel begins with a rent hike, all too common these days. 


 It was already difficult enough for Kiara to pay rent because she doesn't have a steady job; it's not as if she doesn't try to find one but potential employers are "so hung on the high school dropout shit" that nothing ever pans out for her.  She grabs a couple of shifts here and there at a liquor store, which helps keep her family afloat, but with a double raise in the rent, what she makes is just not enough.    She has a brother, Marcus, but he'd quit his job and now spends his time recording rap ("spitting rhymes in a studio") with the hope that someday he'll make it big like their Uncle Ty, who is now living in Los Angeles in a mansion and driving a Maserati, having left family behind.  On hearing the news of the rent hike, Marcus asks for just one more month, but what Kiara sees is "half a dozen SoundCloud tracks and no paycheck," while he waits for things to change.   Kiara's father, who had joined the Black Panthers, had been arrested, imprisoned and released, but sadly succumbed to cancer; her mother is also out of the picture.  "Adultification" indeed -- it seems that the family's survival now  depends on Kiara, who has also taken it upon herself to see to a neighbor's little boy since the mom is too whacked on drugs to care about him.  

An encounter at a strip club where one of her friends works  leaves Kiara with money in her pockets, and realizing that whether or not she consents, since her body is going to be used, she decides that maybe sex work could be a solution to her immediate problems.  Another prostitute suggests she get someone to watch out for her, but first she tries to get on with a few escort agencies, frustrated when each time she is told to call back when she's legal.  Finally,  as she says,  "I have a body and a family that needs me, so I resigned to what I have to do to keep us whole, back on this blue street," and "nightcrawling" becomes what she does. 

One of her clients decides that he doesn't need a room or a car to do business, which Kiara doesn't like, but the sex happens anyway outside against a building.   It's then that Kiara has her first encounter with the police, who shoo him off and put Kiara in their car, one of them telling her that prostitution is illegal and he has to take her in.  As one cop begins driving, the other is on her in the back.  This is only the first encounter she will have with the police, and she says nothing to anyone; soon she is pretty much on call with several members of the force, identified only by badge number, never a name.  But when one of the cops later commits suicide, her involvement is about to become a huge story, especially since the cop left behind a letter saying what he had done.   The pressure is on for Kiara at this point, as the policemen begin to hassle her about keeping quiet about the rest of them.  The harassment escalates when a grand jury is formed to hear the case, and the fallout lands squarely on the people Kiara cares about the most.  

It didn't take long at all for me to be sucked into this story; later  I discovered that the author had been inspired by a real-life case of an (at first) underage sex worker that had the same sort of encounters with some policemen in Oakland in 2016.  I have to give the author major points for not just rehashing that event but coming up with her own take, which gets into the life of this girl who has to grow up all too soon and take her family's survival on her shoulders.    At some point though I started wondering why Kiara or her brother never applied for some sort of help from various agencies, from the state or even better, from organizations like People's Breakfast Oakland (especially since her dad was a former Black Panther!) or the East Oakland Collective,  and that led me to question whether or not the author did enough research that might have made this story more realistic.    As just another example of the inconsistencies that exist in the latter part of this novel, how in the heck would Kiara have known or even cared about Pinterest (as in the remark she made about her attorney's office space looking like it came "straight from Pinterest"), especially since she tells us early on that she has no access to internet?   There were other things like this as well and after a while they just started to grate.  And speaking of her attorney, she came across flat as a character here and not very believable as an advocate.   For me, the book started strong, but as it progressed it just made me frustrated.  

I look at reviews all across the internet and everyone is just loving this book, so once again it's a case of maybe it's just me.   I realize it's her first novel, that she's young and talented, but for me it's a case of not exhibiting enough real-world knowledge and the need for more consistency that would have better tightened things up throughout the story that soured my reading experience.  Loved the story; it's the execution here that caused issues for me.