“Wave” By Sonali Deraniyagala
It’s an audacious start to a story. A woman standing in her Sri Lankan hotel room with a friend, looking out over the sea, mildly discussing their imminent departure home, when they notice the water has submerged the beach. They’re curious and the woman calls for her husband to come and check it out. Seconds later, the woman and her friend realize that the water is still coming towards them—higher and faster. And in a blink of an eye she, her husband and two children are racing away from a tsunami. Yes, a strong start to a novel, but “Wave,” by Sonali Deraniyagala isn’t some end-of-the-world fiction. It’s the true story of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed over 200,000 people. Deraniyagala wasn’t one of them; her husband, sons and parents were.
It takes just 10 pages to detail the actual tragedy but countless pages afterward to come to grips with it. “Wave” takes us from Sonali’s initial rescue through the very painful and very real grief that she suffers for many years—the last entry in this small book is from 2012 and the loss is still being immediately felt. Her recollections are almost dreamlike in their execution. Years later, she still remembers the most mundane details of her life ‘before,’ like mud encrusted on her son’s boots or the string hanging from the cuff of a sleeve. These family memories are painful to her and she resents them as they only remind her that they are gone. She is in the worst kind of Catch 22—by remembering she has to acknowledge that they are gone. But if she doesn’t, they disappear, and she doesn’t want to forget. So, she maintains their presence no matter the pain it causes.
There are many reviews on Goodreads that take her to task for her behavior and the length of her grieving. I didn’t feel the need to be a critic of her emotions. They are her emotions after all, and she has as much right as anyone else to feeling them. Her writing is wonderful and courageous, and I wanted to continue the journey with her as uncomfortable as it sometimes made me. Make no mistake—she did behave badly. Harassing a Dutch family living in her parents’ house. Drinking to excess. Willing herself to die. At times like these, I could have become unsympathetic to her. But who am I to say how a person should grieve? Who am I to lay down rules on behavior or pass judgment? Everyone navigates life differently whether it’s how to handle being fired from a job or coping with a tragic death. Once I put those thoughts aside, I was able to see “Wave” for what it is—a family tribute.
There is always that hint of sadness knowing we are discovering people who are no longer with us. Yet bringing them back to life allows her to eventually accept what happened to her. The stories are lovely and bittersweet because Sonali is so open and raw. What a thing it is to watch her rediscover the love she has for her family without having to experience the pain of their absence. She talks about her husband, Steve, and how they met and fell in love. The pride she feels for her son’s Vik and Malli. The love and devotion for her parents. She vividly describes the homes where they lived and the places they would visit. She talks about their bumps and warts. She tells it all and grows better because of it.
Sonali let us into her life with no regrets. Doing this was not easy for her. Years later—and with the help of a therapist she thanks in the Acknowledgements—she is able to acknowledge that, “maybe it is not so overwhelming after all, to dissolve the divide between now and then.” I was happy she came to that realization for us the reader, for her the bereaved and for her family the beloved.
Thank you for reading!