Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Rolled Back Beach by Neluka Silva and Simon Harris

There are some things about a ‘tsunami’ book that make you jump to conclusions. First, that it is dated, this means that if you are reading it in 2009, you know it is all about 2004 December 26th. Then you know it will be sad. Then you know that it will be written most probably by a person who wasn’t even caught in the tsunami and who will employ pathos and emotional blackmail to make you feel really bad about not being caught in the tsunami. And finally, you wonder is it worth it?
When I got The Rolled Back Beach by Simon Harris and Neluka Silva as a gift, all those thoughts went through my mind. And I am happy to report that I was proved quite wrong regarding the last conclusion. It is worth reading.
First I was jolly pleased that I got a book as a gift, it’s such a rare thing these days. My mother remembers being given books ad nauseoum when she was a child. But not any more. Today, most people give you silly clothes that don’t fit, or ugly things for your home. A book, in my opinion is the best gift of all. You can read it and then if you don’t like it you can give it to someone else!
Anyway, I am straying. So I got this book and thought it must be the first time that I saw a book of fiction that had only two authors. And then I began to read. Now here is a note of caution for writers. When there is an obvious difference in the style and standard of the writing between two authors it can be a difficult thing to review a book. Most often you would probably like some stories of both in somewhat equal proportions. But what do you do if you like one author much better than the other. Well that is what happened to me. In this collection, I liked all the stories of Simon Harris (except for Beth’s Bear,) and while Neluka Silva is not a bad writer and is quite creative, her stories kind of paled next to Simon. So let me explain why.
Simon Harris writes with a style that is restrained, pared down, and evokes much description from a few sentences. In fact in my mind typically English. And let me hasten to add that is not a bad thing. Let me illustrate, his first story has this: “It was as if all life had been sucked from the night air and replaced with an oppressive stillness that clawed at the old man’s throat as he laboured down the hill beckoning beyond the darkness, barely remembering as a boy how he had raced the same route from Sunday mass to the pebbled beach beneath the watchful gaze of a lighthouse, dormant at the far end of the fort.” Ok that is a really long sentence. But it is like a movie. You can just imagine the scene. His story Comic Relief, another example of beautiful, funny and evocative description that is still sharp, not maudlin and mushy,and in four pages describes rather accurately the bureaucratic nightmare that exists in Sri Lanka.
So, you get the picture about Simon’s writing. Now onto Neluka Silva. If I had read her stories on their own, in her own little collection I might have been charmed. She writes in a typically Sri Lankan way, using a lot of conversation, colloquialisms, charming mannerisms and very local. Perhaps her stories are too local. They remind me a bit of Elmo Jayawardene’s stories. Anyway, what the stories are about for both of them is no surprise. They deal with various aspects of the tsunami – heroisms, shame, fundraising, relief work, grief, regret, and I suspect many of the stories must be true.
So my final word is that it’s a nice book to have and I look forward to more of their writing. But here is a word of advice. Publish separately.