On Boxing Day in 2004 an earthquake deep in the Indian ocean – the third largest ever recorded, which caused the entire Earth to shake by 1 centimetre – triggered a tsunami that devastated the coastal towns of Indonesia, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Over two hundred and thirty thousand people were killed. When confronted with these numbers it is hard to comprehend the magnitude of such an event. Over thirty-five thousand causalities occurred in Sri Lanka alone. Around two hundred and fifty of those people were in the Yala National Park on the south-east coast. Five belonged to the same family.
In Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir Wave we are given an insight into one woman’s experience of that day, and the desolation that followed. Deraniyagala, raised in Sri Lanka and an economist living in London, had returned with her family for the Christmas holidays. Her husband, Stephen, and two young sons, Vik and Malli, were getting ready to leave, their safari vacation over, when she noticed the ocean rising: ‘Waves not receding or dissolving. Closer now. Brown and gray. Brown or gray. Waves rushing past the conifers and coming closer to our room. All these waves now, charging, churning. Suddenly furious. Suddenly menacing.’Deraniyagala’s parents were in the hotel room next door. As Deraniyagala and her husband run past with the children, they do not stop to knock. Only Deraniyagala survives. Her parents, husband and two sons are swallowed by the wave.
Reminiscent of Joan Didion’s duet Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, Deraniyagala’s prose is cool and detached, allowing us access into what might otherwise be an unfathomable pain. Deraniyagala is not prone to over dramatisation – indeed her story is in no need of it – but the distant way that she describes the months after the tsunami allows the reader to slowly inhale the reality of this grief, to examine it closely without being overwhelmed by it. In the periphery of Deraniyagala’s vision we see glimpses of the family and friends in Colombo who are trying desperately to keep her safe: aunts spiriting away alcohol and sharp objects, friends visiting from London, a cousin who metes out sleeping pills one at a time.
As she emerges from the initial stupor we are with her when her anger takes over. In a heartbreaking passage, Deraniyagala recounts her obsession with the family that comes to occupy her parents’ house. She spends nights outside, rattling the gates, pretending to be a ghost. She whispers threats into the phone until the family changes their number. She attempts to confront the extent of her loss, the immensity of her pain becoming clear in the smallest of details:
‘We will not fly back to London. The boys will not be at school on Tuesday. Steve will not call me from work to ask if I took them in on time. Vik will not play tag outside his classroom again. Malli will not skip in a circle with some little girls. The Gruffalo. Malli will not cuddle me in bed and read about the Gruffalo, with that poisonous wart at the end of its nose. Vik will not be excited by whoever scored for Liverpool. They will not peep into the oven to check if my apple crumble has cooked.’
And yet, despite the intensity of Deraniyagala’s grief, the effect of Wave is not entirely devastating.
In his review for the New Yorker, ‘A Better Quality of Agony’, Teju Cole describes Wave as ‘two stories in one.’ The initial story, Cole says, is that of ‘the stunned horror of a woman who lost, in one moment, her past, present, and future…The second story is about remembering the life of a family when they were happy.’ It is this dual narrative that brings light to the experience of reading Wave. She returns to the family’s London house and among the detritus of a life lived the image of the life she has lost comes into sharper focus. Vignettes of life before the tsunami rise to the surface, a life that had been described by a friend in the moments before the tsunami as ‘a dream’.
As the years pass Deraniyagala begins to emerge into the world, almost without will. She simply lives. Deraniyagala’s memoir offers no answers; there is no moment of resolution. But there are moments of relief. From her new apartment in New York eight years later, Deraniyagala allows herself to slip ‘between this life and that,’ allowing space for the voices of her lost family:
‘This is very different from those early months after the wave, when all I heard was a sudden whisper, some snatches of sound. Their voices have doubled in strength now, not faded with time. Their chatter plays with my thoughts no end. And I am sustained by this, it gives me spark.’
Brigid Mullane is editor of Kill Your Darlings.