Book review: A memoir of life and loss after the tsunami

Sarah Weinman reviews Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

On Dec. 26, 2004, the worst thing imaginable happened to Sonali Deraniyagala. On vacation in Sri Lanka with her husband, their two sons and her parents, she and her family, like countless others, were swept up in the Pacific tsunami. Deraniyagala’s entire family perished. She survived.

Wave is about the all-encompassing grief that dominated Deraniyagala’s sense of self in the months and years after the loss. “Each night I hoped to die from my frenzied terror of drinking,” she writes of a time months later, because “I knew I had to wake up the next morning and relearn the truth all over again.” Deraniyagala, an economics professor at the University of London and research scholar at Columbia University, writes sentences so stripped down they seem practically flayed. In their declarative tone, they reveal the barely controlled emotion she still feels, even after years of distance. To waste words on sentimentality or too much description would be to capitulate to something larger and darker.

And yet, despite the emotional devastation Wave describes, this is not a grim and unrelentingly depressing book. Memories of mundane activities like making pancakes or Friday night dates are rendered with tenderness, while a scene where she describes meeting new friends clueless about her tragedy have the power of an unopened Pandora’s box. Can she keep the slate blank? Can she carry on, despite the fathoms-deep grief?

The answer is yes. But what makes Wave so remarkable is how Deraniyagala accepts her feelings of guilt and realizes she can move forward only by keeping her lost loved ones even closer to her heart and mind. That she can find slivers of hope is a testament to the resilient spirit within us all, and to the fact that we can draw hope from the worst darkness.

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