[25 June 2013]
It’s as easy to summarize Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave as it is impossible to truly comprehend it. The author, a Sri Lankan native turned London-based academic, was vacationing with her family in southern Sri Lanka in December 2004. You may recall that December 2004 was the month that a devastating tsunami swept the region, killing tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people.
When that tsunami struck the hotel where she was staying with her family, Deraniyagala managed by some miracle to survive. Her family was not so lucky: Deraniyagala lost her husband, her two young sons, and both her parents to the wave. In the space of minutes she went from being the matriarch in a loving family spanning three generations to being utterly alone.
Wave is the story of Deraniyagala’s long struggle back from the shock of this experience. In many ways, of course, there is no hope of “getting over” such an event; the best one can hope for, perhaps, is a kind of philosophical acceptance that allows one to get through the day.
The book makes clear that such a huge trauma necessitates numerous stages of recovery. There is a significant phase of numbness, accompanied by an attempt to simply shut out the world as the mind whirls in denial of what has happened. There are heartbreaking moments of mistaken identity—a voice, the glimpse of someone else’s child—and the constant assault of unwanted memories. Eventually, there is the slow movement toward some kind of equilibrium, a phase in which those memories are welcomed and even accepted, although in this instance, “acceptance” suggests something rather more pat than the reality.
Deraniyagala proves to be a narrator both capable and courageous. Her voice is astonishingly measured throughout the book’s many short sections, although she is unafraid to express her sense of loss with disarming baldness: “I begin tidying up a bit, putting things where they should be… This laundry is clean, I should fold it. I carry the basket to the boys’ room. And then I stop myself. What am I doing? Who am I readying the house for, they are not coming back. Don’t be fool, this is mad.”
Elsewhere, the author indulges in reminiscences concerning her husband, parents and children—memories that are almost unbearably painful in light of subsequent events. Perhaps the most moving section in the entire book concerns her early courtship with her husband-to-be. To her credit, the author eschews melodrama—her material scarcely requires it—and also manages to avoid self-pity, which is no easy task under the circumstances. She isn’t afraid to display occasional flashes of anger, however: “Why don’t you go to the house for a change, Steve,” she addresses her now-dead husband. “You can rattle their beds and yowl through the windows and send them packing. Having me do the dirty work as usual. What do I have to be the fucking ghost?”
Deraniyagala follows a straightforward chronological timeline, with some detours for flashbacks. Chapter one describes the impact of the wave itself, with subsequent chapters outlining the days, months and years that follow. There is no attempt to describe the tsunami in scientific or geographic terms, and no mention made of its international scope or relief efforts. The book remains focused purely on the author’s subjective experience. This is neither good nor bad in itself, but it suits the book’s single-minded focus.
Wave fits the pattern of what might be called “grief memoirs”, books such as Joan Didion’s The Yeah of Magical Thinking, which also concerned the death of a spouse and child. This book is different from that, though, despite the superficial similarities in subject matter. The great accomplishment of Wave—one of them anyway—is the author’s ability to put an individual face on such a massive tragedy.
Wave is a book well worth reading, but to recommend it feels a little strange. What exactly is it I’m recommending? A stroll through the traumatized past of one phenomenally unfortunate woman? It’s all too easy to feel like a tourist in such circumstances, and a book such as this all but forces a reader to confront such questions.
But the fact remains that Sonali Deraniyagala lived through a shattering experience and then found the strength to write about it—for all I know, writing about it is what gave her the strength to live through it. In any case, readers who are as unflinching as the author will find the experience of reading this to be difficult, but ultimately rewarding on many levels.