A Better Quality of Agony


Teju Cole reviews Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, in The New Yorker:

Sorrow flattens her. Then sorrow gives way to anger and suicidal fury, and it takes a dedicated group of relatives and friends to lock away the knives and hide the pills and keep her from self-harm. There’s a period of alcoholism, and for a while she harasses, with demonic inventiveness, a Dutch couple who have rented her parents’ home. Grief is a frightening condition, and at its extreme is like the sun: impossible to look at directly. That Deraniyagala wrote down what happened is understandable. But why would some unconcerned individual, someone who has not been similarly shattered, wish to read this book? Yet read it we must, for it contains solemn and essential truths. I am reminded of what Anne Carson wrote in the introduction to “Grief Lessons,” her translation of four plays by Euripides:

Grief and rage—you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you—may cleanse you of darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you.

Carson is writing specifically about Greek tragedy, works of tragic fiction, and of course a book like “Wave” is only too real. There’s nothing put on about Deraniyagala’s suffering. But part of what Carson says applies. In witnessing something far-fetched, something brought out before us from the distant perimeter of human experience, we are in some way fortified for our own inevitable, if lesser, struggles.

Also of note is William Dalrymple’s review of Wave in The Guardian.