If someone were to recommend a novel in which the reader knows, from Page 1—in fact, from the back cover—that the protagonist loses five people she loves in a matter of moments, I would be skeptical. It would be too far-fetched for fiction. But Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala’s devastating memoir about the 2004 tsunami, is not fiction. While on vacation in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, Deraniyagala lost her two young sons, her husband, and both her parents in a single morning.
We are all drawn to stories of tragedy and trauma, almost always for a sense of comfort—to know that someone else has gone through what we have gone through and survived. Or to know that someone else has gone through something far worse so that we can feel better relatively. Or to experience the pleasures of sadness and pain from a distance. We look for this pleasure in our novels, our movies, our television shows, and even in our comedy. But when we read about a tragedy like Deraniyagala’s, it rewires the way we look at the world. She herself asks, “How is this me? I was safe always. Now I don’t have them, I only have terror, I am alone.” It is far from comforting. It makes us scared.
Because, let us be honest, the person writing is a Person Like Us. She is international—a Sri Lankan woman living in London, married to a British man. We can picture her two sons with their handsome caramel skin and light eyes. We know the sort of resort where the family was vacationing when the tsunami hit. This is not the story of a nameless villager in Sri Lanka who lost everyone in the tsunami. What makes this story particularly terrifying is that it makes us feel vulnerable. It could be you. And so the backstory that Deraniyagala gives us about her family, while poignant, is not what we are reading for. We are already coloring the text with our own stories, and that may be why Deraniyagala gives us a stock photograph of an interracial family. The boys climb into bed with their parents in a home in London. Deraniyagala wraps them in blue towels when they step out of the bath. The family travels to Sri Lanka on holidays. They are flawed but even their flaws are picture-frame-worthy.
Much more moving are the flaws Deraniyagala herself exhibits during the aftermath, the mourning. She writes about her own behavior with disarming honesty. Of course she is a victim, but when a Dutch family moves into her parents’ home in Colombo, she calls them at all hours of the night and harasses them. She visits their home under cover of darkness and, often drunk, screams at them through the gates. The loneliness of her experience is vivid. Her relatives and friends check in on her and help her stay alive—they sit with her, they hide the kitchen knives, they ration out her sleeping pills—but the family in her parents’ home has their own life to live. On those dark nights, Deraniyagala is alone and desperate to share her sorrow. She responds to the world the way the tsunami treated her family—with a savage anger—and you share her sadness. You don’t want to live in a world in which any one person can have to face something like this.
This memoir engages the reader more deeply than any piece of fiction. For tragedy fetishists, Wave has every possible permutation and combination of pain. On the one hand, it is so shocking to imagine one person going through this that it is hard to believe you are reading nonfiction. But perhaps because of that, you are constantly aware that you’re reading nonfiction.
Although the content of Wave is heartbreaking and soul-crushing, there is a glimmer of hope, if one is determined to see the bright side of things. It’s amazing that a human being can suffer through a tragedy of this scale and survive and write a beautiful book. Deraniyagala talks about her multiple attempts to end her life after the tsunami, and as readers we should be grateful that she did not succeed. She is testament to what human beings can endure. She does not speak of finding new love or making peace with what happened or discovering happiness again in the smell of cut grass or her friend’s children. But the very fact that the book exists means she survived and can walk and speak and write—beautifully—even though she is permanently tinged by grief. The book itself is the only object of comfort.
Deraniyagala is an economist by profession but Wave is a book by a writer. The language is powerful in its simplicity and clarity. The book opens as the tsunami is approaching and Deraniyagala and her family attempt to outrun it. The two opening chapters move with the speed and urgency of the water that rushes towards them. We know the result, but those pages are, for lack of a better word, thrilling. We want to hope. We always want to hope. But as reality sets in, the book slows down and meanders through memories and fantasies. Deraniyagala has to keep reminding herself that her family is dead. The second chapter, ends with, “I was terrified that tomorrow the truth would start.”
The next page, just as you feel unprepared for the truth you also already know, we flash back to Deraniyagala’s son, Vikram, eating a bag of crisps. Relief. But the relief is short-lived and the book is relentless. It has no other option. This is much more than a sad book. This is a book that shifts something fundamental inside you. It trivializes the word “sad.”