Washed Away


Cheryl Strayed reviews Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (photo by Ann Billingsley), in the NYT Sunday Book Review:

Sonali Deraniyagala’s extraordinary memoir, “Wave,” opens on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, as the author putters around a Sri Lankan beach-side hotel with her family. By chapter’s end she’s pantless, half-drowned, bleeding, bruised and numbly resistant to what she’ll soon be forced to know: The five people she loves most in the world are dead. Her two young sons. Her husband. Her parents. All of them killed by a force she can’t yet comprehend, though she was caught up in it and nearly killed by it too. She only knows that “something came for us.” It was, as she and the world will soon learn, a tsunami of epic scale that took an estimated 230,000 lives across a dozen countries.

So begins the most exceptional book about grief I’ve ever read. In prose that’s immaculately unsentimental and raggedly intimate, Deraniyagala takes us deep into her unfathomable loss. In the months after the tsunami, she lives in her aunt’s house in Colombo — the city she grew up in — huddling beneath the covers of her cousin’s bed, attempting to imprint the phrase they are dead on her consciousness. She fights off sleep because it only means she will have to relearn the truth in the morning.

She doesn’t allow herself to think of her home in London, her career as an economist or even to open the curtains in her borrowed bedroom. She wants to kill herself as soon as possible, but her relatives foil her plans by locking away the knives and uncovering her hidden accumulation of sleeping pills. Still she tries. She stabs herself with a butter knife and puts out cigarettes on her hands. “An army of family and friends” begin to watch over her day and night.

She resolves to never go outside again; how could she when outside is where she went with her sons, Vikram and Malli? She asks herself, “How can I walk without holding on to them, one on each side?” When she finally works up the courage to do so, she’s devastated by everything she sees — a child, a ball, a bird, a 100-rupee note in a man’s hand. “The last time I saw one of those,” she writes, “I had a world.”