Joanna Luloff was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s and her experiences inform every page of her assured debut collection of interlocking stories, “The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka.”
Set during the unsettled period of Civil War between ruling Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers, the stories present the conflict from the perspectives of native Sinhalese and Tamil family members, as well as Western aid workers. Using a popular technique to great effect, Luloff’s characters star in multiple narratives. Each of them is looking to recover or discover a sense of home and a sense of connection to others in a world gone wrong. As Luloff has put it, “All of the narratives, in some way, reflect on exile and the feeling that home has become unfamiliar.”
For “sad, quiet” Sam, a Peace Corps volunteer, the civil war was almost an abstraction, until he saw a body floating in the river. He dreads a visit from his parents, certain they won’t see “why he wasn’t absolutely desperate to get home after more than two years in this sweltering heat, in this busy, tumultuous place.” His reason for wanting to stay was Nilanthi, one of his students, who figures prominently in a number of the stories.
In one of those, Nilanthi’s brothers become soldiers. Her youngest brother Lalith:
Fantasized that the darkness would lead them home. That in this blind wandering, the pull of Batticaloa would be too strong and would lure him off his Bandarawela route, putting him on a path more intuitive and instinctual. The smell of fish and dry, heated earth would greet him, and Nilanthi would welcome him home.
Another American, Carol, travels to Sri Lanka to find herself. She “liked the idea of being lonely – lonely on her own terms, not lonely because her life had somehow become lonely.”
UN volunteer Lucy took a chance to “shift from observer to participant” by taking a position in the dangerous, war-torn north. Yet, even in this country of crisis, she is often “bored and lonely.” She takes up with a Norwegian doctor, “trying to find a way into that ‘we’” of his connections, finally finding what she needed while sitting out a raid in a primitive shelter. “This was the least alone she had felt since arriving in Jaffna, she thought, and this thought – its absurdity – made her smile in the darkness.”
In their own ways, Luloff’s characters fight against the “blaring loneliness” that comes from the horrors of being displaced from home by war. While her Western characters struggle to make themselves at home in an alien culture, her Sri Lankan characters bravely try to hold on to their physical homes that are being destroyed by the ravages of war.
“The Beach at Galle Road” is an unforgettably moving reflection on the very human battle against loneliness and loss. This is a triumphant debut collection.
“The Beach at Galle Road” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.