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.