If you appreciated the book Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer, or viewed the movie 127 Hours with rapt attention, then you are ready to read Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. This raw and poignant memoir relates how Sonali lost her entire family in a tsunami, which she barely survived. In fact, for many years she really was “dead” to the world, as she was so emotionally crippled and defeated. Through her veil of sadness seeps flashbacks that create a picture for the reader of those she lost: her sons (Vikram and Malli), her husband Steve, and her own parents.
The most riveting pages of the memoir occur early in the book as Sonali relates her version of the tragic day that she and her family confronted the thirty feet high wave that moved through the land at 25 miles an hour, and charged inland for more than 2 miles. The tension builds as she captures the strangeness of those moments in short, terse sentences. Her version of the story is so brave and honest I wanted to applaud, yet at the same time I was appalled by the savageness of her thoughts and manner in this time of crisis. Her reaction to a crying child during the aftermath of the tsunami was repulsive, but believable given the circumstances. Sonali harbours mean thoughts (which the author deliberately chose to reveal), for a time becomes hopelessly alcoholic, and finds sick comfort by harassing a Dutch family who moved into her home in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sonali’s self-portrait occasionally shocked and disappointed me, as part of me wanted some superhuman hero to emerge from this tragedy. Perhaps the author intended to paint an unflattering portrait of herself as a form of punishment…she had so many regrets and feelings of guilt to confront.
As a parent, it is hard for me to contemplate losing both my children. It is miraculous that Sonali survived the loss of all five people closest to her. At first she found some semblance of comfort in the thought that she would kill herself soon (when all the bodies were found). The image of her scouring the ravished landscape of Yali in Sri Lanka looking for family belongings is devastating. In an insightful passage, Sonali remarks that she appreciated the landscape because her surroundings matched her own deformity. As a reader, I experienced some of Sonali’s grief and that of her friends and their children who were also struggling to cope with the such a sudden and devastating loss. Sadness was counterbalanced by seeds of hope. An 8 year old friend of Vik and Malli, a few months after the wave, insisted that they had come back home. She had dreamed of them and they were holding hands, walking out of the sea.
As time passes Sonali is able to share more stories of how she met her husband, their cultural backgrounds, their appreciation of fine food, and the eccentricities of her children who exhibited such confidence, creativity and intelligence. As a reader, I felt a great sense of loss that such vibrant people were killed…that is Sonali’s gift to the reader. Seven years later we see Sonali emerging from her frozen emotional state as she is able to remember and reveal her pain to strangers, rather than to distance herself from her loved ones and their deaths. There is a lovely life-affirming scene when Sonali finds herself whale-watching off the Mirissa Coast in 2011 and is able to appreciate the staggering beauty of the blue whales, without feeling overwhelmed by the absence of her family and guilty for seeking happiness without them: “My earlier discord eases. I don’t dread whales without Vik. I don’t need so much to duck and dive from remembering. I am unclenched and calmed by the beauty of these creatures, by their pureness, and I savor this relief.”
Why did Sonali write and publish this memoir? An article by Smriti Daniel that appeared in The Sunday Times reveals that Wave is a memorial constructed out of words and memories. Although the author largely avoids interviews, TV appearances, readings and signings, her story is public and she is not likely to regain anonymity. The book naturally developed from a suggestion made in a therapist’s office, and it allowed Sonali to open up her heart and memory, and keep her lost loved ones close. Smriti Daniel concludes that when you read the book you grieve with her, and in the end you are comforted by the knowledge that love endures.
This sad memoir is ultimately life-affirming, teaching me that light can arise from darkness, and that human beings have the capacity to survive unbelievable tragedy.
If you were captivated by the book Wave, you might also want to read:
Summary from publisher: On an icy night in October 1984, a Piper Navajo commuter plane carrying 9 passengers crashed in the remote wilderness of northern Alberta, killing 6 people. Four survived: the rookie pilot, a prominent politician, a cop, and the criminal he was escorting to face charges. As they fought through the night to stay alive, the dividing lines of power, wealth and status were erased and each man was forced to confront the precious and limited nature of his existence. The survivors forged unlikely friendships and through them found strength and courage to rebuild their lives.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
Summary from Publisher: The author describes his spring 1996 trek to Mt. Everest, a disastrous expedition that claimed the lives of eight climbers, and explains why he survived.