Book Review: Wave – A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami

On the 26th of December, 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala’s friend named Orlantha stood in the doorway of a hotel room in the Yala National Park on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. She praised Sonali’s two children and her marriage and said, “What you guys have is a dream.”

She then looked out the window and saw a tsunami wave flushing toward the hotel.

Minutes later Sonali’s ‘dream life’ vanished when her husband, children, parents and friend Orlantha were all killed by the tidal wave that ripped thousands of lives apart in Sri Lanka.


Calm before disaster

Wave is a quick, unsentimental read. Sonali first recalls strange memories of being swept up in water. Her mind recalls unexpected imagery while this nightmare unfolded, while she was temporarily trapped in a car, then swept away. At one point she looked up to the sky. “Painted storks, I thought.  A flight of painted storks across a Yala sky…”

After finding out that her family has been killed, she stays with other family members who live in Sri Lanka. At first, she is resigned to end her own life. She writes, “The next morning my aunt called doctor. A bit pointless, I thought, I will kill myself soon.” And, “I kept Googling ways of killing myself.  I needed to know how to do it successfully, I couldn’t mess it up.” The result of her mindset was that “An army of family and friends guarded me night and day.”

The story describes time in Sri Lanka, and then Sonali’s return to her London home years later. It was there where she had lived with her children, as well as the husband she  had met while studying at Cambridge. For years, Sonali oscillates between depression, denial, and drug abuse.

“This could not have happened to me. This is not me. I teetered endlessly. Look at me, powerless, a plastic bag in a gale.” And, “After my evening of drinking I’d pop two pills, then another two, another four, four more, and two more again, in quick succession. Then a mug of gin.”

She blames herself for the death of their family, though there is no reason to do so.

“How I have fallen. When I had them, they were my pride, and now that I’ve lost them, I am full of shame. I was doomed all along, I am marked, there must be something very wrong with me. These were my constant thoughts in those early months.”


Tranquil, and powerful

The years pass and her ability to handle the loss increases. There are also glimmers of the inexplicable and the synchronous that she, a professor of economics, does not question. One event regarded the sister of her deceased husband.

“Steve’s sister Beverly sat on my bead wiping her tears. On the morning of the twenty-sixth of December, she had woken up in London, weeping. At the time she hadn’t been able to imagine a reason for this….before someone phoned her with news of a tidal wave in Sri Lanka, she had been crying.”

Another occurs when she visits the site of the demolished hotel in Sri Lanka with her deceased husband’s parents. They wander around the wreckage.

“When I came back to my father-in-law, he was holding a sheet of paper, peering at it. He showed it to me. He told me he’d stood in that wind and spoke a few words into the air, to Steve and the boys. That’s when something fluttered by his foot…..just a scrap of paper…It was the back cover of a research report written by Steve…”

With time, her ability to cope increases – not by blocking out the past years with her family, but by embracing them.

“I can recover myself better when I dare let in their light.”

As she re-establishes her life and works not only in London but also in New York, Sonali faces a recurring problem when people she meets ask if she is married or has children, or where her parents live. Mostly, she shrugs off these questions and ignores them. This book, however, is her answer.  It is Sonali’s way of admitting that the past with her family was not a dream, but a beautiful reality, where she learned – as any of us may – how all we cherish can be lost within minutes.


Wave – A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami

by Sonali Deraniyagala

Published by Virago Press, a division of Little, Brown Book Group, London.

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