The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka
by Joanna Luloff (Sri Lanka 1996-98)
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93)
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
-William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
Blake’s observation is as true of countries as it is of people. Some indeed seem born to endless night. Guatemala. Mozambique. Rwanda. Three otherwise beautiful counties plagued by civil war. There are others, of course. Sri Lanka, an island nation located off the southern coast of India, for example.
From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka was the site of a civil war pitting the government against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, whose aim was to create an independent state in the north and east of the island. Over the 26-year-long war, more than 80,000 Sri Lankans died and thousands more disappeared or were displaced. Both sides were guilty of war crimes, including attacks on civilians and executions of enemy soldiers. More than a million landmines were employed over the island’s 25,000 square miles.
The stories in Joanna Luloff’s fine and deceptively quiet first book of stories are set against this dark backdrop. Over the course of her thirteen linked stories, the war creeps closer and closer into the lives of her protagonists, both Sri Lankan and American, until, by the ninth story, “Ghost Neighbors,” it has arrived in full and ugly force. Even if readers were to have chosen “Ghost Neighbors” with which to begin the collection, they would have felt nothing short of devastated by the war’s brutal impact on its characters. But if readers have partaken of the stories chronologically, and have therefore come to know the characters, they will feel an even more profound sense of loss-and a fury at the indiscriminate madness of war.
In the book’s eighth story, “January Tie,” Sunitha and Nilanthi are seen as schoolgirls. Their opposite appearances and dispositions (Sunitha is gorgeous and un-studious, Nilanthi plain and smart) provide a winning formula for friendship. It’s easy to imagine this friendship lasting until they are ancient women, with wisdom and memories to share. In another country, this would be all but guaranteed. But in Sri Lanka, they are not born to sweet delight. The opening of “Ghost Neighbors”: “Nilanthi woke up in an unfamiliar bed, surprised she was still alive….She wanted to be dead.”
For Luloff’s characters, happiness is as short lived as the ceasefires in the civil war. Even the American characters-a collection of Peace Corps Volunteers and international aid workers-have trouble finding moments of joy. A number of them have abandoned unpleasant situations in the States only to come up short of happiness in their lives halfway around the world.
In “I Love You, Come Home Soon,” Sam, an English teacher from the U.S., anticipates his parents’ visit to Sri Lanka with dread. The emotion is well-placed. Their visit is a disaster. His mother falls seriously ill, and his parents’ vacation is spent in hospitals. Although Sam vowed to introduce Nilanthi, who is one of his students and on whom he has a crush, to his parents, he never does, despite Nilanthi’s help in guiding Sam’s mother to the best medical care. If Sam’s parents don’t understand his life in a foreign country-a refrain Peace Corps Volunteers and RPCVs will certainly find familiar-Sam seems unable, or perhaps merely unwilling, to explain it to them. He would like his parents to bless his current life, but, as he acknowledges, he “imagined a lot of things he doubted would ever happen.” Unable to bridge Sri Lanka, as represented by Nilanthi, and the States, as represented by his parents, he seems destined to live in an unsatisfactory no-man’s land.
Lucy, the American protagonist of “Up North,” is more decisive than Sam. She wants an authentic Sri Lankan experience. And what could be more authentic than the Sri Lankan civil war? Although trained as an English teacher, she convinces Isak, a Norwegian doctor, to allow her to accompany him on his work in a refugee camp. Here she sees the war’s devastation up close but nevertheless feels removed from it. By the end of the story, however, Lucy’s persistence pays off. At last, she can write a letter home about the war in which she won’t “have to make up anything at all.” That is-if she survives.
If Sri Lanka’s civil war assumes a ghostly presence in the first half of The Beach at Galle Road, haunting its protagonists with the horrors it might bring, it becomes flesh and blood-a regrettable amount of blood-toward the book’s end. Luloff skillfully builds her collection toward a devastating climax. Had the book ended with “Ghost Neighbors,” readers might have concluded about Sri Lanka that it had become, in the words of another poet-Bob Dylan, who had a thing or two to say against war-”too dark to see.” But if the final story allows for a little light, it is the same light, and the same liberation, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” discovers at the end of her ordeal. The lesson from Sri Lanka’s gruesome recent history as seen in Luloff’s compelling stories might be this: the only way to survive the madness of war is to go mad oneself.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Award from the University of Notre Dame Press, and four other books. His novel Julia & Rodrigo is forthcoming from Gival Press in 2013. He is a professor of English and directs the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.