The Beach at Galle Road

Written by Joanna Luloff
Review by Ellen Keith

Technically, The Beach at Galle Road is a collection of short stories, but they can’t be read independently of each other. Each story either refers back to another story or puts center stage a character that had previously played a minor role. The setting is Sri Lanka in the 1980s at the time of its civil war. I started this book knowing little about the war, but Luloff finds the universal in this conflict as families and friends are separated by their ethnicities.

Stories are told from the point of view of Sinhalese and Tamils, Americans and British. No one is left untouched by this conflict. What is perfectly rendered is how foreign the Westerners are. They are aid workers and teachers, there to make a difference, but understanding so very little how this world works. Luloff, a Peace Corps volunteer herself, isn’t mocking them but instead reveals how the best intentions aren’t always accompanied by cultural perceptiveness.

The stories are filled with people who are ordinary yet made fascinating by their individual responses to the conflict in their lives. Some are defiant, some submissive. The short story format is particularly effective with this subject matter. One of the last stories in the book reveals the shocking fate of a character that appeared earlier. Rather than abrupt or jarring, this somehow feels in keeping with a community engaged in a civil war. Shocking things happen; people disappear; young men become boy-soldiers. Although this is no travelogue, Luloff’s love of Sri Lanka is also evident. I can see why her Western characters found it hard to leave.