Happy families, with bright, live-wire teenage daughters and cricket-mad sons, suffer and become obliterated in Sri Lanka’s endless civil war. The usual family aspirations of university educations and good marriages evaporate as war’s mayhem sweeps the island.
Joanna Luloff’s The Beach at Galle Road is a series of linked short pieces that one can read as a unified novel. That is certainly the effect Ms. Luloff achieves as the last few stories conclude what is a harrowing story of loss.
The eponymous road, which runs parallel to a beach, becomes a metaphor for risk and change as we read of the sister of a central character driven to madness by her husband’s bizarre need to shame and abandon her. Shame arises from strict societal mores throughout this collection, but these concerns begin to fade as the stories shift to the Tamil population, which bears the brunt of depredation on all sides: war from the government side, and purges from the rebellious Tamil side. The issues escalate to life and death as boys are whisked off to the fighting and their mothers turn up dead and floating in the river.
One theme deals with Westerners who have come to Sri Lanka, volunteering to teach or tend to the sick. The local customs and strictures baffle them, just as their behavior shocks the locals. This idea dominates the earlier stories, but the shift to the Tamil side of the conflict leads to loss, starvation, child combatants, and suicide in a smooth and well-executed swing in the stories.
This collection touches us because we know all too well of the loss and madness of war. These truths are brought home to us in this memorable and very honest collection.