Book Review: Beautiful Place

“Luck didn’t make you feel lucky. Being saved didn’t make you feel safe.”

This book just didn’t do it for me. It happens. No reader is going to enjoy every title they pick up. Beautiful Place is big – well over five hundred pages – so it was disappointing that my personal reading experience was largely one of frustration. I will try to explain.

The story opens by introducing the protagonist, Padma, a young woman who has returned to the luxurious villa she grew up in with her adoptive father, Gerhardt. In many ways Padma’s upbringing has been typical of the children of wealthy Sri Lankans. She is well educated, although repeatedly failed her university exams. Where Padma differs from her peers is her beginnings. Her birth father, Sunny, sold her to Gerhardt when she was nine years old, fully expecting him to use her in heinous ways. Instead, Gerhardt legally adopted the frightened young girl and treated her as a good father should. He bribed Sunny to stay away.

Gerhardt is an Austrian architect who has built a solid and respected international reputation for his work over many years. He designed the villa in rural Sri Lanka that became Padma’s haven. When she returned from Columbo – where she had been living with Ruth, a long time friend of Gerhardt’s, while attending university – she asked Gerhardt, now living in a nearby property, if she could open rooms within their villa to up-market paying guests. Ever eager to support his beloved daughter, Gerhardt arranged for two small bungalows to be built in the grounds of the villa and offered them to Padma as the basis for her fledgling hospitality business.

Padma’s first guest is a young man named Rohan who is escaping the fallout from a distressing court case. He arrives with a heavy suitcase and an air of guilt and suspicion. From this inauspicious start the pair are drawn together. The villa’s chef, Soma, is unimpressed by Rohan but remains loyal to Gerhardt’s wish that Padma be protected and supported in her venture.

Sunny remains a local hoodlum. His success and influence appear to have increased over the years. He wishes to continue to profit from Padma. Despite her knowledge of his twisted hatred and ingrained greed, she believes herself strong and clever enough to resist his machinations. She agrees to visit her birth parents when told her mother, Leela, is ill.

The setting, Sri Lanka, is key. There are many rich descriptions of its natural beauty. The people, however, are largely grasping and resentful. Parents remain determined to control their offspring and arrange marriages that will not just be socially acceptable but also lucrative for the family. Small business owners take every opportunity to fleece tourists and damage competitors. The lane leading from Padma’s villa is lined by bars and brothels – and the pay by the hour guest houses their clientele frequent. All residents must buy protection in cash or favours. Connections to powerful leaders bring with them impunity.

“Sri Lankans had always fought each other, she argued; peace was not in the Sri Lankan’s nature and the social inclusion he strove for was a Western liberal fantasy.”

Padma brings down trouble on herself by acting foolishly. She is described as attractive in looks and demeanour. Her behaviour too often made little sense. The device of her guest house allows for a rolling cast of characters whose actions and reactions demonstrate the malignancy of control – the desire for power over others – both within families and throughout the country. Parents sow seeds of mistrust and hatred in the younger generation who have been raised to cede to demands made of them – thus secrecy is endemic. The parents, even loving ones, are wary of any signs of independent thinking.

This beautiful country is populated by natives who are riven by their history but joined in their desire to make money from the visiting foreigners whose habits they service yet bitterly resent. Women in particular are depicted as powerless – although they find ways to exert influence amongst family and friends. Each of the characters desires what they regard as others’ freedoms. Love is portrayed as restricting.

I struggled through the first half of the book before momentum finally picked up and the story became more compelling. The final hundred or so pages again lost my interest. For supposedly clever people, the main characters appear to court obvious and avoidable dangers. The denouement was tidy and without schmaltz but felt a long time getting there.

The narrative is lecturing in style as opinions are dissected. Plot threads felt thin and lacking depth – there to enable discourse rather than provide entertainment. As well as frustrating I found the story depressing and will now add Sri Lanka to the list of countries I have no wish to ever visit.

I am perplexed as to why those with the means to leave would choose to stay in such a place. Of course, controlling families who try to guilt trip their offspring exist the world over – while their wishes are tolerated this will not change. Beautiful Place is not a novel that engenders feelings of hope in human attitude or behaviour. My hope is that other readers glean more from this book than I managed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.