Saturday, May 23, 2015

Jenny's Book 5:15: Wave


Wave is a memoir by Sonali Deraniyagala, I bought it about a year ago when we popped into the bookstore to get something for Darius. I had read some good reviews of it, but still memoirs are not usually my thing. However, as time goes by, I realize I have a little space in my black, bitter heart for memoirs that are about truly exceptional events. And this definitely qualifies. It is by a woman who lost her two sons, husband, and both of her parents in the 2004
Indian Ocean tsunami.

However, I think it's more than just disaster porn for me; there was another reason this disaster spoke to me in particular. We were in Seattle at the time, and the tsunami struck the day after Christmas. We had family in the house, and Darius was only 18 months old. I remember that on the front page of the New York Times there was a photograph of a person surrounded by bodies, some of which were very small. And, Kelly, I couldn't even bear to look at it. The very idea that your child could die in a disaster was too terrible to contemplate. I'll always remember that moment (Okay, this is very upsetting so fell free to skip. This is not the exact photo, I don't think. But this brought back exactly the feeling I had that morning.)

I think because of that memory, I was drawn to this book. After the earthquake in Nepal last week, the "coping with a natural disaster book" went to the top of my list. I don't know what that says about me, but there it is.

One question I ask my students over and over again is why do we read? They come up with a pretty good list, but one of the top choices is to experience other people's lives and emotions. I sometimes joke that there's nothing better than a read like The Fault in Our Stars, the kind of book that leaves you crying so hard you have snot on your face. Interesting, although this book is tremendously sad, it isn't that kind of book. It's the most dignified and raw exploration of loss that I've ever read, but without being a tear-jerker.

It's beautifully written, and the story starts with her looking out the window from their hotel in Sri Lanka (the author is Sri Lankan, and she and her family split their time between Sri Lanka and London). They are at a hotel on the beach in what is essentially a National Park. Her parents are in the room next door, and when they see the wave coming, she and her husband grab the children and run. She doesn't even stop to warn her parents. They simply run. But the wave catches them, and she survives only by grabbing a branch at the last minute before sweeping out to sea.

The memoir itself does not detail every minute, a period of years is covered in a few paragraphs. Years pass before it picks up again. If anything, it portrays the long arc of grief, the quick bursts of memory, the surprising way that even a small object can bring it all back. What's also fascinating is how she grieves for each person in turn, starting with her boys, her parents, and finally her husband. She literally couldn't process all that happens, and because her story is so unbelievably tragic, it's almost impossible to share. We know what to say when a friend reveals they lost someone, but what do you say to a person who lost everyone? Deraniyagala writes, "I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate. I hear this occasionally. A friend will say, I told someone about you, and she couldn't believe it was true, couldn't imagine how you must be. And I cringe to be bereft in a way that cannot be imagined, even though I do wonder how impossible this really is. Occasionally an insensitive relative might walk away if I mention my anguish, and I reel from the humiliation of my pain being outlandish, not palatable to others" (114).

The magic in this story, is that for her, grief is an act of suppression. Of just trying to not think about it, and only as years pass does she allow herself to remember. Its lessons are powerful: only as we can remember can we truly heal.

This book is lovely, and I would recommend it to anyone who knows what it is to love and feel loss.

1 comment:

  1. This book looks rough. I'm pretty sure I couldn't handle it. Go forth and report back.