In Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala chronicles the events and aftermath of the Sri Lankan tsunami that killed her parents, her husband, and her two young sons. They had all been staying at a beach hotel together on December 26, 2004, when they were swept up in the water. Only Deraniyagal survived.

It sounds horrifically sad, doesn’t it? It is, of course, but maybe not quite in the way you’d expect. Deraniyagala describes her early months of grief and confusion with such unflinching, precise style it takes you somewhere deep inside her experience. You’re not standing on the outskirts wringing your hands at the unspeakable tragedy that’s occurred, you’re immersed in it, somewhere beyond the tears.

Cheryl Strayed has a great review of Wave in which she writes, I didn’t feel as if I was going to cry while reading “Wave.” I felt as if my heart might stop. Yes.

It seems like the first chapter, focused on the actual events of the tsunami and her surreal rescue, would be the hardest to read, but it’s about halfway through, when Deraniyagala emerges somewhat from the muffling shock and suicidal despair and begins to process her losses, when her writing became so powerful — her guilt, her helpless rage, her raw pain — I had to keep putting the book down. Read a page, put it down. Breathe. Repeat.

I don’t have the ability, really, to tell you about the beauty of how Deraniyagala slowly allows herself to stop repressing the memories of her family and, bit by bit, breathes vivid new life into what was. She does it so exquisitely each page fairly resonates with the galloping footsteps of her children. The sizzle and pop of her husband cooking mustard seeds for dhal. Her old life rendered in fullness, while never stepping back from that yawning abyss of its absence.

Towards the end, she writes,

Seven years on, and their absence has expanded. Just as our life would have in this time, it has swelled. So this is a new sadness, I think. For I want them as they would be now. I want to be in our life. Seven years on, it is distilled, my loss. For I am not whirling any more. I am no longer cradled by shock. And I fear. Is this truth now too potent for me to hold? If I keep it close, will I tumble? At times I don’t know. But I have learned that I can only recover myself when I keep them near.

There is no mawkish sentimentality in Wave, no reminders to hug your children, savor every moment, or embrace the comforting notion of a divine plan. It’s honest and vivid and intimate, a great suffering and a slow healing, somehow a nightmare and a gorgeous dream all at once.

It’s unforgettable. If you get a chance, read it.



42 Responses to “A book you should read: Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala”

  1. dorrie on April 15th, 2014 9:01 am

    Ordered. You have never steered me wrong with a book or a product. Thanks for the great tips!

  2. Nicole on April 15th, 2014 9:33 am

    I heard the author’s interview on NPR when the book was first published and I have wanted to read it ever since. I have yet to feel reinforced enough to take it on though. Just thinking about the enormity of her loss takes my breath away. I am about 3/4 of the way through The Goldfinch and I absolutely love it. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

  3. Jess on April 15th, 2014 9:35 am

    Wow. I just finished reading the excerpt on Amazon and caught myself holding my breath several times. Added it to my cart immediately.

  4. Lesley T. on April 15th, 2014 7:41 pm

    I highly recommend _The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss_ by Geneviève Jurgensen. It’s another utterly non-sentimental book about sudden loss and grief that has to be read slowly, carefully, and with breaks between passages.

  5. June on April 16th, 2014 9:18 am

    I got this via an e-loan from our library and read it yesterday. (I read the bulk of it during lunch break at work and had to close my office door to hide my tears.) It is amazing that this woman is still alive, honestly, let alone able to write with such clarity and love. Thank you for sharing the recommendation.

  6. Christine on April 16th, 2014 10:50 am

    I normally love your recommendations, and I am sure that this is a lovely book – but I just can’t. I mean, I teared up reading your entry about Riley and Dylan and the case of the smashed finger. Thanks out of whack postpartum hormones!

    What a tremendous loss.

  7. sooboo on April 16th, 2014 1:22 pm

    Thanks for introducing me to Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny, Beautiful Things. I also read Wild as well as the Best American Essays 2013, which she edited. All of them were great. I’ll get on the list for this at the library. I love when you share what you’re reading.

  8. Michelle on April 16th, 2014 3:21 pm

    I’m sure it’s a lovely book, but I teared up reading your description so I don’t know if I can manage it.

  9. Shawna on April 17th, 2014 6:10 am

    I can tell you right now I will never read Wave – I am just not into intense books about loss, no matter how well-written and beautiful. I am the sort of person who sits by the pool and a hot day and reads a bit of schlock set in the winter, then am surprised I’m not surrounded by snow when I finally look up. In other words, I submerge myself to the point of folly.

    On the other hand, I see you’ve got “The Rosie Project” on your sidebar and wanted to take a moment to highly recommend it for my fellow lovers of lighthearted book fare. It has the distinction of being the only book ever that my mother, my husband and I all utterly LOVED, and my husband hardly ever reads anything but graphic novels and my mom has a propensity for weightier subjects (think Angela’s Ashes or Fall On Your Knees).

  10. Annie on April 17th, 2014 11:54 am

    Ahh, thanks for the recommendation. I will proceed with caution as I’m having heart palpitations just THINKING about the subject.

    I noticed you read and loved The Goldfinch (and who hasn’t?!). I read The Secret History when it was first released and loved it, but never could get into her second novel The Little Friend. Well, I just finished it and oh my god, I loved it. I’m a sucker for a sassy, spunky 12 year old main character and this girl Harriet is amazing. I loved her and I highly recommend the book. It took me a bit to get into it, but once you settle into the rhythm you’ll be dreaming about these characters as well.

  11. Amy K on April 18th, 2014 2:24 pm

    I’ve had this book saved, but suspended, in my library hold queue since it first came out. The subject matter is so intense that I’ve been waiting for the right time to read it. It’s good to know that there’s more to it than simply tragedy and pain.

  12. Kendall on April 22nd, 2014 8:03 am

    I’m sure it is a lovely book but I started crying in my office just thinking about it. Perhaps someday when I have a few days to sob in privacy I will download it!

  13. Stacy on April 25th, 2014 4:30 pm

    Immediately after reading your review I purchased this book from Amazon and as soon as it arrived I began reading it. Your review is spectacular – the book was exactly as you said, heart-stopping. It was engaging, amazing and insightful. A fabulous book well worth my time. Thanks for the recommendation!

  14. Jenna on May 1st, 2014 6:02 am

    I read – and loved – it too. I was initially reluctant to read it because I have the delicate emotional sensitivity of a newborn bunny but I’m so glad I did. What has stayed with me is the way she beautifully captured the bizarrely irrational, unpredictably stumbling nature of grief.

  15. Christina on May 16th, 2014 10:54 pm

    I ordered this book and finished it in one day, usually reading it while I was nursing, rocking, or holding my 3 month old as he slept. I am not a super emotional and do not cry easy, but feeling my baby’s warm breaths on my chest while reading about her loss made me tear up so many times. Beautifully written book. Thankyou for the recommendation.

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