We have spent years and years watching—and taking part in—strife in the Middle East. We’ve heard about the Gaza Strip. We’ve watched the Arab Spring. And now we’ve got Libya and Syria to hear about, to talk about, to watch. But we’ve also ignored countless other countries and regions in crisis, while the focus of United States news and government overseas continues to be tied to whatever serves our interest.
One of those places overlooked is Sri Lanka, which spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s and up through 2009 embroiled in a civil war between the ruling Sinhalese and separatist Tamil Tigers. Joanna Luloff was a Peace Corp worker there, and she saw the tumult of the country—as it spread from the north where much of the fighting started, to those living seemingly far away in the south—and that experience shaped her first book, The Beach at Galle Road. This often fascinating and always carefully linked collection of stories shows the effect of such devastating civil war not only on a country, but on individuals. We see families scared, on edge, and broken by war, and we see outsiders—often volunteers from America like Luloff was—becoming entangled in the war and loss, as well.
Loss informs everything that happens in The Beach at Galle Road, even the most hopeful moments, and Luloff’s language is often subtly, but powerfully, still and mourning in its nature. The opening story, “Counting Hours”, gives us an older woman who “counts the things she once had but has lost. She gathers her memories around her like her useless bedsheet, which never completely wards off the chill.” This woman, older than many of the other characters in the book, tells her quiet story as some sort of incantation. Her story sets the tone for this book, but also offers it up to those no longer around to tell their own stories. Not only that, but it gives us perspective, that the wounds of this war aren’t fresh gashes, but scabbed, scarring things torn open again and again, things never quite allowed to heal.
And so we see people who can’t quite heal as things disappear around them. Disappearance, the lack of the physical becomes incredibly important. Lakshmi, a woman who comes to stay with her sister on Galle Road, has a husband who, as a Tamil sympathizer went missing. The uncertainty surrounding him—which masks the very real certainty that she won’t see him again—manifests itself in a sort of defiance from Lakshmi. She wears short skirts, heeled shoes, nail polish. Each of these things is frowned upon, each makes her the subject of whispering and rumor, each is her own small rebellion.
In her, we see not only a reflection of a national hurt but also, paradoxically, how it makes her isolated, an outsider. We see a similar isolation in other characters. Sam, an American Peace Corps worker, falls in love with a student, but also feels the distance between them, of both culture and family ties, which, as we learn, are strained for him in a very different way. We also see that student he loves, Nilanthi, years later haunted—quite literally—by an old friend, and how that apparition distances her from the community and from her husband, Dinesh.
In all these characters, we see the myriad effects of war, but there’s also an unsettling sense of escape in these stories, particularly from the outsiders. Sam may be well intentioned, but he is also escaping, like so many Western youths, the perception of a stifling home life, the perception of a lack of possibility. That he recoils back into his work rather than face this reality shows a clear disconnect, the limits that we can self-imposed on our empathy and, consequently, our ability to truly help. The relationship between the families in Sri Lanka and the foreign workers is often friendly, even familial, but also complex in quite ways as we see them, though small manners, as when Lucy, a 23-year-old woman in “Up North”, seems like a girl in contrast to Sri Lankan women her own age who have already become mothers.
Luloff’s careful hand in moving the war closer and closer to these characters is what drives the underlying tensions in The Beach at Galle Road. We see brief flashes, as in “Up North”, of true violence, but mostly the war creeps in through second-hand stories, through news reports, through rumor, through people gone missing both in the middle of these stories and on the periphery. As characters become isolated, you, too, feel the country itself isolated, shut off from the outside world.
There are moments when Luloff deftly draws analogs between the personal and the national. Nilanthi, in the final story, recounts her husband’s sickbed wedding proposal by saying, “Dinesh planted a wedding ring on her finger while her body was still hooked up to buzzing machines in the understaffed hospital. He proposed to her while her body choked in opposition.” Nilanthi drank lye, she has been driven by grief to poison herself, but we also see here a (masculine) power exerting its will on its defeated object of control. Nilanthi is nothing more than an object, a wife that will later be “paraded around”. That this backfires on Dinesh is both tragic and inevitable, but the ties to the controlling effects of warring powers are clear and subtly devastating.