Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala is a heart-wrenching memoir. We are introduced to the author's young family right away as they go about preparing for departure from their oceanfront hotel in the Yala National Park, Sri Lanka, where they have been vacationing over the 2004 Christmas holidays. Along with her two boys, seven year-old Vikram and five year-old Malli, and her husband Steve, are her parents, Aachchi and Seeya, occupying the room right next door, a fact that torments her for years to come - they were so close, and yet...

As Sonali looks out of her hotel window that morning, she notices the ocean has risen to a height she has never seen before, washing onto the hotel grounds and churning toward their room. After a few moments of disbelief, she and Steve grab the children and head out toward the road, catching a ride on a passing jeep. Her parents, she realizes, are probably still in their room and, in the rush to save her children, she passes their door without knocking. Sonali's sense of guilt over this is as palpable as it is devastating; she never sees her parents again. The wave then quickly engulfs the jeep, turning it on its side, spilling out all the occupants into the roiling mud. And just like that, she is on her own.

I can't even conceive what a loss of this magnitude would be like. Being a mother myself, I look to books like this with a sense of wonder and deep respect. The author has survived the experience of outliving her children in the most cruel way imaginable. How does one even begin to describe the effects of such personal devastation? Are there words? What words? I found a number of passages that helped me to understand her grief. She describes being shattered, dismembered, a howling heap on the floor. Back home, the sight of school backpacks hanging on the door handle as always, each one now a scalpel. She finds three cheques her husband wrote on their last day in London, for the gardener and the milkman and for the boys' school dinners. Those two words, school dinners, were all it took. I shattered.

Shattered. That's the word I had been looking for for clarity, for understanding. Sonali doesn't feel shattered, she is shattered. I stared at that passage for a long time.

What follows is her recovery back into something that resembles life. The years of grief, of remembering and trying to forget. She recounts family events and small everyday things that let us get to know her sons, as young as they were, her husband, and her parents as well. It is a touching and riveting story filled with much love.

In December 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala, her English husband, and their two small boys travelled from London to a seaside resort on Sri Lanka's south coast to spend Christmas with her parents. On the morning of December 26, they were packing to leave for Colombo when they saw an unusually large wave approach far too close to their hotel. They began to run, but very soon water engulfed them and she was separated from her family in the churning water. She never saw them again. Wave is a raw, utterly engrossing, beautifully poised account of the devastating event that all at once changed life as she knew it, of what came before, and of her long journey since in search of understanding and redemption. (back cover)

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