Skip to main content
book review

Sonali DeraniyagalaAnn Billingsley

Deep into Sonali Deraniyagala's Wave, she describes herself as a "shocking story, a wild statistical outlier." A chatty woman on a plane tries to draw her out: Is she married? Does she have children?

She cannot answer these questions. In 2004, she was holidaying with her family on the southeast coast of Sri Lanka when the Indian Ocean tsunami came ashore. Her husband, her two sons and her parents all died in the wave.

At the end of Moby-Dick, the narrator explains in a brief epilogue how he alone came to be rescued from the water, to recount his ship's fateful voyage. It is as though even a tale of epic proportion cannot contain that last part of the story. Sonali Deraniyagala's book is all epilogue.

It is a meditation through grief and a meditation on grief. It is courageous, truthful and, above all, generous. In the first place, it dares to tell an impossibly difficult story.

Deraniyagala gives a bravely detailed account of shock, of the hunger and anger of early grief, of its consuming selfishness, its fearful pain. She gives us a powerful exposition of the relationship between grief and shame, in her case so extreme she doubts whether she could have been her children's mother if it were possible for her to survive them. Instead of assuming we could never understand, she writes a book that trusts we will.

There is a moment early in the narrative when the writer has herself just been found, in shock, in the mud without trousers. She is brought to a house in which there are some women who know her slightly.

They try to make her speak and, when she cannot, they do: "The women began to lament my plight. Never in their lives had they heard such a story, everyone dying and just one person left. She's lost her children, she's lost her world, how can she live? And her children, they were so beautiful. If they were me, the women wailed, they wouldn't be sitting quietly, they'd be out of their minds, most likely they would have died of grief."

These women form a regular Greek chorus. We recognize a tragedy not by its losses but by its endurances, by the capacity of human beings to contain what they could never have imagined.

Yet Wave is not just an account of extremity. What amazed me most about the book is what good company it is.

Deraniyagala is accepting and tender in her record of grief, attending to details we rarely write down even when we experience our losses singly.

There were times reading the book when I felt ashamed that this woman should be comforting me, walking me back through any grief I had known, eclipsed by the enormous shadow of hers.

You read Sonali Deraniyagala's story and there is really nothing more to fear. It is an honest eye in the storm and a curiously steadying read.

Almost compulsively, the book catalogues the terrible contradictions of grieving: how life clashes with death and time runs over the end of time.

The writer balks at a blade of grass that has the audacity to grow after her children have been stopped.

Entering her home four years after she left it with her husband and sons, she finds a cricket bat among the soft toys and catches herself on a reflex to move it to its proper place. Evening light still slants across English countryside. In a bowl is an onion skin that has lasted.

Wave is in fact full of persisting life. The first time I read it, I stayed so close to the writer's side I barely even noticed that around her shock, life was teeming: white-bellied eagles, kingfishers, songbirds, blue whales, cicadas, scented lime-leaves and the jungle itself rising back out of salt water.

There are also many people, family and friends, who give themselves completely to caring for Deraniyagala.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis's account of his grief for his wife, in which he wished for the presence of other people, "if only they would talk to one another and not to me."

Wave reads also as a detailed offering of love to the writer's husband and children, a fervent wish to record them in detail. Reading Deraniyagala's account, I wondered if it would have been possible to write the happiness that is in the book if it had not been lost. This task of retelling the past through the present may be the most difficult to perform. If there was anything I regretted in this book it was that it sometimes laboured too hard on behalf of the reader, rendering family life more logically than the way we live it. Occasionally, I wanted to stop the writer and say, no, I am willing to do some work for this story. It seems the least I could do for a person who has lived it.

I read Wave in Sri Lanka, where the shock of this story is known and Sonali Deraniyagala's name will elicit a spontaneous moment of silence. I realized that when others were in the room I put the book down on its face so I would not have to discuss with anyone what I was reading. I had crossed a line, to stand faithfully by a woman I have never met, transformed by her story.

Sunila Galappatti is a writer living in Sri Lanka and the former director of the Galle Literary Festival.