A Review of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave


Laura Miller in Salon:

Deraniyagala had been vacationing with her family in a seaside hotel near a national park when, through a terrace window, she saw the sea rising rapidly past its familiar bounds. With her husband, Steve, she grabbed Vikram, 8, and Malli, 5, and rushed out the door and up the drive. They jumped in a passing jeep, but soon the wave overwhelmed even that. The last time Deraniyagala saw her husband’s face, he was looking in horror at something over her shoulder. Then the jeep overturned, and for Deraniyagala the next few hours were chaos, violence and filthy water, the tsunami tossing her miles inland and then sucking her out again. Just before she would have been swept out to sea, she grabbed an overhanging branch and felt the ground materialize under her feet. She never saw her family again.

“Wave” is Deraniyagala’s account of this nightmare, but the tsunami itself only takes up a handful of this spare, radiant book’s pages. The rest is what came after, months in that darkened room contemplating suicide, then a period of getting drunk every day and conducting a demented campaign of harassment against the Dutch family to whom her brother rented her parents’ house. Deraniyagala, an economist at the University of London and Columbia University, had been living with Steve and the boys in London, but she wasn’t able to set foot in their English house for two years.

The extremity of Deraniyagala’s story seizes the attention, but it’s the beauty of how she expresses it that makes it indelible. Who knew that the ranks of academic economics harbored a writer of such extraordinary gifts? Deraniyagala grasps that seemingly unteachable truth: just how much you can (and should) leave out when you have given your reader the one detail that will make your world real to her. “Wave” is a small, slender book, but it is enormous on the inside.

The narrative arc of “Wave” follows the evolution of Deraniyagala’s grief. At first, she alternates between rage and numbness. In the hospital where victims gathered after the wave receded, she turns away from a weeping boy, silently fuming, “You stayed alive in that water because you are so fucking fat. Vik and Malli didn’t have a chance. Just shut up.” At her aunt’s house, she recalls “pieces of me hovered in a murky netherworld, timeless day after timeless day.”

Once she crawled out of bed, Deraniyagala initially recoiled from anything likely to remind her of the past: “I panicked if I saw a flower. Malli would have stuck it in my hair. I couldn’t tolerate a blade of grass. That’s where Vik would have stamped.” On an errand with a friend, she looks at the hundred-rupee note in his hand and thinks, “The last time I saw one of those, I had a world.”