Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1600
Author: Sonali Deraniyagala
Publisher: Knopf (New York). 240 pp.
Type of work: Memoir
Locales: Sri Lanka, London, New York
Sonali Deraniyagala recalls the 2004 tsunami that devastated coastal Sri Lanka, killing her husband, sons, and parents. She describes her experiences and the periods of intense grief during the years that followed.
Sonali Deraniyagala's first thought about the incoming wave was one of relative curiosity; the presence of waves running higher than usual on the beach was interesting, not captivating or even fear inducing. She and her family were on vacation on December 26, 2004, and she was focused on her sons and husband. Suddenly, the water rushed inland with such speed and ferocity that the author, her family, and friend had to get into a jeep to drive away from it. However, the wave quickly overtook the jeep, tossed it over and continued inland before sweeping back out to sea. Deraniyagala was found in a bog, internally wounded and naked below the waist. Brought to a medical clinic, she was shocked and dazed; she did not know what had happened. "Something came for us," she thought to herself repeatedly.
Deraniyagala's memoir, Wave, begins with this account of that fateful day. Her husband and children were separated from her when the jeep was tossed; her parents were never able to leave the hotel. Deraniyagala's entire family was gone. From this morning of chaos, Deraniyagala's memoir tells two stories: the spell of intense grief into which she fell from the moment she learned of the death of her family, and the many years it took for her to replace her grief with the memories of those she lost.
Deraniyagala's injuries were, at first, physical in nature. She sustained internal injuries when the jeep was toppled. She later developed an infection from ingesting dirty ocean water. After treatment in the hospital, however, her wounds became psychological as she grappled with the idea that everyone close to her was dead. She was initially enveloped by a combination of shock and sorrow, but these emotions would eventually be replaced by rage and self-destructiveness. The writer's earliest chapters seem to move across several years with great speed, and yet her recovery fails to match that speed. For some time, while living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Deraniyagala thought of death and contemplated ways to commit suicide and even made some half-hearted attempts. She also drank excessively and combined medications with the alcohol. As she describes in the book, she took pleasure in the departures from reality the combination of drugs and alcohol produced. The hallucinations kept others away and kept her away from the pain of her own experiences.
She also attempted to project her pain onto others. Deraniyagala recalls how she terrorized a Dutch family that moved into her family's home in Colombo. She would bang loudly on the gates late at night, telephone them after midnight (screaming and making ghoulish sounds), and make other attempts to force them to leave the home. No criminal charges were filed against her, but in the memoir, she expresses regret for having caused them such fear and pain.
It took years for Deraniyagala to return to London and the place that she, her husband Steve, and their two children called home. She traveled all over the world, attempting to distance herself from the anguish she felt, while friends at home in London kept the house clean and orderly until her return. Deraniyagala was still in shock and terrible pain, blaming herself for taking her family on holiday to Yala, the resort and seaside park where the wave came ashore. She consistently attempted to distance herself from her grief, only to find herself enveloped in it much in the same way the wave had originally engulfed her.
Deraniyagala eventually returned to their London home where she walked room to room, finding reminders of the day they left for Yala, such cookware they used and clothing that belonged to her husband and children. Her memoir reveals that as the years progressed, she began to move away from attempting to reconcile her family's death and toward nostalgic moments in their family history: Vikram's love of nature, Steve's obsession with cricket, Malli's creativity. She also developed a bond with her cousin's children, sharing many of the same experiences she had with her own children with the girls with whom she had lived for years.
Her happy memories of her family do not represent therapy, however. Wave intermingles these images with comments about their deaths. Deraniyagala explains that she subconsciously and consciously attempted to block her memories of her family. She recalls in an interview that during her time in Colombo, she wanted to guard herself from any kind of memory.
It took a great deal of time for the physical devastation at Yala to be cleaned up and repaired. Much of what was destroyed by the tsunami remained at the site. When Deraniyagala's father in-law convinced her to go back with him to the hotel, she recalls, he called out to Steve and the children. Moments later, a paper landed at his feet—a page from a report that Steve had written. This amazing coincidence led Deraniyagala to briefly come out of her shell, looking for some sort of item, a toy or piece of clothing that belonged to her family.
It was this experience that led her to begin to allow some of the memories to return, particularly in the house in London. She found the spot where Steve and she had used a red pen to mark the boys' height. At first, her willingness to recapture these memories centered on only the humorous moments. Over time, she let more extensive memories return. One of her later chapters, for example, is dedicated to how she met and fell in love with Steve. She began to realize that the pain of attempting to forget her family was far greater than the pain of remembering them.
A native of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala lives in New York City and serves as a visiting scholar at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She is also a professor of economics at the University of London's School of African and Oriental Studies.
Deraniyagala's story does not end on either a positive or negative note. Two years after her experience, she moved to Manhattan to be closer to her therapist. He suggested to her that she begin writing down some of the memories that came to mind rather than attempting to block them. These memories included the terrifying images she saw when the wave came ashore. Since her arrival in Manhattan (she left Colombo in order to escape the public spotlight), she traveled to and from London and of course Sri Lanka, gradually letting more memories come to light. She ends her memoir describing her recovery as a work in progress—wherever she goes, she either recalls memories or imagines how her children and husband would share the experience with her. Memories, long blocked, continue to flow into her conscious mind at various and even random times. Such images cause pain, but the pain of attempting to forget, she says, is a much greater agony.
Wave, which is a compilation of these memories, came about at the suggestion of Deraniyagala's therapist and of a friend in Colombo. Not one to offer unsettling statements in public, she was initially wary of publishing a book that highlighted the shocking images of Yala and her own pain-driven behavior. She expressed concern to both her therapist and her friend that readers would not be interested in such a memoir. Her fear was quickly dispelled, however. Publishers got into an intense bidding war for her story, and the book rapidly gained critical success.
The surreal, yet very real, story of the 2004 tsunami is not the distinguishing element of Deraniyagala's memoir. In fact, she does not provide many details of the destruction that occurred on that day simply because she did not witness it. Much of her memory of the event is clouded by the chaos of the wave, and it was not until years later that she learned that she was found not far from her hotel and that the wave had swept her far inland and was pulling her back out to sea before she somehow managed to hold onto a tree branch. Initially, she had no memory of how she was found until she met the men who saved her. In fact, it was not until well after the event that she learned that the wave had killed more than 200,000 people.
The driving force behind the critical success of Deraniyagala's account is the frank and yet beautiful story of her ongoing recovery. One critic commented that readers could see and even feel Deraniyagala's intense grief. Other critics have commented on her bravery to not only survive the tsunami but to also bring her trauma into the light for others to share. Readers of Wave learn that as Deraniyagala continues to forge a new life and future in New York, she also finds health and hope in experiencing her past.
- Adams, Tim. "The Tsunami Survivor Who Lost Her Whole Family". Rev. of Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. Observer. Guardian News and Media, 9 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Jan. 2014.
- "A Dying Fall." Rev. of Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. Kirkus Reviews 1 Feb. 2013: 282. Print.
- Garner, Dwight. "The Tsunami Killed Her Family. She Tells of What Came Next." Rev. of Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. New York Times 6 Mar. 2013: C1–C6. Print.
- Strayed, Cheryl. "Washed Away". Rev. of Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. New York Times Book Review 24 Mar. 2013: 11. Print.