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 $57,000 award for his second novel, the AP reports 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 murdered war photographer investigating his death and trying to ensure his life's legacy.
Karunatilaka said Sri Lankans "specialize in gallows humor and make jokes in the face of crises," adding, "It’s our coping mechanism." And Karunatilaka expressed hope that his novel about war and ethnic division would one day be "in the fantasy section of the bookshop." 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. Karunatilaka paid tribute to his fellow authors on the 13-book longlist and six-book shortlist for the prize. "It's been a hell of a ride, and I've been expecting to get off at each stop," he said.
The five-member jury read 170 novels before choosing a winner. Former British Museum director Neil MacGregor, who chaired the judging panel, said all the books explored the actions of individuals in a world "where fixed points are moving, disintegrating." He said Karunatilaka's book "takes the reader on a rollercoaster journey through life and death." The event was the first fully in-person Booker ceremony since the pre-pandemic event in 2019 and the first for longtime literacy champion Camilla since her husband became King Charles III. 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. (Read more Booker Prize stories.)