‘Galle Road’ an Empty Portrait of Sri Lanka

'The Beach at Galle Road' by Joanna Luloff (Algonquin Books)

As Emily Dickinson once wrote in a poem, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away.” Many of the most successful works of literature accomplish just that. But “The Beach at Galle Road,” the debut collection of Joanna Luloff‘s short stories, is proof that this is not a sufficient criterion for a book to be considered good. While Luloff paints an enticing, vibrant image of Sri Lanka within the various interweaving stories that constitute her work, this depiction, informed by her work there as a Peace Corps volunteer, does not redeem the book’s deep flaws.

For a writer, the title of a work can often be a potent tool. One would think that “The Beach at Galle Road” could serve such a function—very little of the book actually takes place at a beach—yet in this respect it fails spectacularly. Its significance is explicitly stated in the collection’s second story, when a character thinks to her sister, “Which way are you headed on Galle road, Lakshmi? What stories will you tell me about the journeys you will take?” None of the subtlety that could come with such a title is present; the reader knows almost immediately that Galle road unequivocally represents the paths one follows in life and hope for the future. And yet Luloff constantly assaults the reader with the significance of “Galle road” as the book goes on, to the point that its appearance becomes mind-numbing as opposed to an invitation to discover its meaning, as it should be.

Indeed, Luloff’s greatest weakness as a writer is that she finds it very difficult to leave anything unsaid. She constantly chooses to tell, not show, the reader the world that she depicts to the point that she at one instance writes of a character, “He doesn’t notice that he is leaving red fingerprints along his throat and under the collar of his shirt,” a blatant disobeying of the limited point-of-view which Luloff typically uses.

In other cases she does not permit the reader to interpret details that could have a powerful impact on one’s interpretation of the text if he or she were not explicitly told how to interpret it. Luloff has one character, Nilanthi, choose to recite Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” for an English competition. On its own, this instance could powerfully inform the reader’s view of the Nilanthi; this moment is spoiled, however, when her mother muses, “Why had her daughter chosen this poem about sacrifice…about a village by the sea growing silent and empty?” At points it seems as if Luloff’s primary goal in her writing is to eliminate any modicum of ambiguity; yet she fails to recognize that she is writing fiction, and doing so gravely compromises the quality of her work, as the reader is deprived of the privilege to interpret the characters on their own.

Were the collection a complete loss, perhaps these flaws would not be so disappointing. But, while “The Beach at Galle Road” has its share of failures, it succeeds in providing a beautifully transporting experience for the reader. One cannot read Luloff’s lush description of Sri Lanka and not long to venture to the “turquoise sea” she describes, eat the “green graham and coconut, some chili on the side to combat the blandness” or the “butter fruit mashed up into a frothy, sweet shake or drizzled with treacle.” “The Beach at Galle Road” works as an account of place because Luloff has employed a crucial aspect of good writing, in that she chooses to write what she knows. Her stories are so potently infused with colorful description and detail that, while the collection does not necessarily qualify as a great work of literature, it is an enjoyable read if it is accepted for what it is.

But it may be quite easy to fall into the trap of misplacing one’s expectations for Luloff’s book. She is describing Sri Lanka during a time of upheaval, and this upheaval does figure into all of her stories; however, when the conflict is not central to the story, its inclusion often seems forced. Perhaps this is because Luloff so well describes what is positive and beautiful about Sri Lanka; in this context, references to true despair and destruction appear nearly impossible. When Luloff does focus on the conflict and its repercussions, however, what she writes is powerful. Nilanthi, for example, once had great expectations for her life, as revealed in one of the earlier stories in the collection. By her appearance at the end of the book, she is ultimately crippled by a suicide attempt and accompanied only by the ghosts of those she loved. These moving revelations, however, are largely crowded in the final stories of the collection. “The Beach at Galle Road” thus cannot be read as an account of the civil war in Sri Lanka if one does not desire to be sorely disappointed.

Dickinson was not incorrect when she wrote, “There is no Frigate like a Book,” but the quality of a book cannot be determined solely by whether or not it transports its reader to another place and gives them a lust for some far-off land. “The Beach at Galle Road” is enjoyable because it potently acts as such a frigate, but it is riddled with flaws that tragically prevent it from being a good book. Luloff’s debut is perhaps the sort of book one would recommend for beach reading, but only were the recomendee not the sort to read any book critically. For, although Luloff’s collection stands strong when judged by Dickinson’s criteria, it cannot hold up under a more critical eye.