Book review: The Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Sri Lankan pedestrians walk through floodwaters in a main street of Galle. Picture: Getty
Sri Lankan pedestrians walk through floodwaters in a main street of Galle. Picture: Getty
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“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” So goes the first sentence of Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 masterpiece, The Good Soldier.

The Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Virago, 213pp, £12.99

It’s a sentence that may spin in your mind while you read the opening pages of Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala’s devastating memoir. If hers is not the saddest story I’ve ever heard, it’s the saddest I ever want to hear again. This book opens beneath you like a sinkhole.

Deraniyagala is an economist, originally from Sri Lanka, who teaches in both London and the United States. On the day after Christmas, 2004, she and her family were staying at a beach hotel on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. That’s the day, the world now knows, that an earthquake spawned a tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

She saw it, or rather she saw something, coming. “Come out,” she said to her husband, Steve, who was in the bathroom. “I want to show you something odd.” The ocean looked closer. It looked foamier.

Before long they and their two young sons were running. There was no time to warn her parents, staying in the same hotel. The four of them made it into a Jeep, and were driving away when the tsunami overtook them.

Her husband died in the churning water. So did their sons, ages five and seven. So did her parents. The Jeep turned over on Deraniyagala, nearly crushing and drowning her. She survived, miraculously, by clinging to a tree.

Wave is a granular, tactile working through of grief, regret and survivor’s guilt. It maintains a tight focus. Don’t arrive here looking for statistics and a journalistic overview of the tsunami. This book contains nothing about tectonic plates, the pressure per inch of water or the numbers of the dead.

It’s a sombre volume that suggests Julian Barnes was right about grief, when he wrote in Flaubert’s Parrot that you don’t emerge from it as if from a tunnel into sunshine. “You come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick,” he wrote. “You are tarred and feathered for life.”

About her family, Deraniyagala thinks to herself: “When I had them, they were my pride, and now that I’ve lost them, I am full of shame. I was doomed all along, I am marked, there must be something very wrong about me.”

The first sections of Wave are largely about her plans for suicide. “I’ll wait until all the bodies are found,” she says. “Then I will kill myself.” Her friends and family hide the kitchen knives. They keep watch over her for months.

Deraniyagala is a close observer of her own anger, more deranging than purifying. When she spies a sobbing and apparently orphaned boy in the aftermath of the tsunami, she reports: “I didn’t try to comfort him. Stop blubbing, I thought, shut up. You only survived because you are fat.” About her own skinny sons, she adds: “Vik and Malli didn’t have a chance.”

Her malice can glitter. Here’s her internal monologue when, during a flight, a woman asks about her family: “‘Oh shut up, you nosy cow,’ I think. ‘You will probably faint if I tell you. You’ll have to pull down your oxygen mask.’”

Anger is a downward chute into something approaching madness. Deraniyagala begins to haunt and harass the members of the Dutch family that has moved into her parents’ old house in Sri Lanka.

Sometimes fuelled by vodka and sedatives, she rings their doorbell at 2am and makes deranged phone calls. She debates killing herself by smashing her car into the wall in front of the house.

Deraniyagala soaks in guilt about her survival. She feels guilty, too, about mourning her husband and children more deeply than she does her parents. “How hideous,” she says, “that there should be a pecking order in my grief.”

The dark places in Wave are made bearable, to some degree, by her evoking her life before everything changed. There are memories of her childhood in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and of meeting her husband at Cambridge. She recalls him grilling fish while listening to John Coltrane. She remembers his obsession with cricket, and that he did an excellent Elvis Costello impression, singing the song Alison. He told her that Alison was an anagram for her own name, Sonali.

Stories of grief, like stories of love, are of permanent literary interest when done well. I’m not convinced that Deraniyagala is a great writer – I would not rush to read her on any topic – but a form of greatness reverberates from her simple and supple prose here.

Her slim book moves forward in time, about a year per chapter. It intimately circles the question all memoirs of grief must pose, one that she puts this way: “Who am I now?” Deraniyagala’s great realisation, a full seven years after the tsunami, is not that her grief has diminished. It remains raw to the touch. Even the sound of footsteps in the flat above hers makes her think that her boys are still playing upstairs. “Then I have to accept,” she writes, “that I don’t have them.” Her great realisation, she says, is that “I can only recover myself when I keep them near. If I distance myself from them, and their absence, I am fractured. I am left feeling I’ve blundered into a stranger’s life.”

Deraniyagala would never use a bogus word like “healing”. Her book is therapeutic because it isn’t therapeutic at all.