The pages of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala grew heavier and heavier. Half way through the book I almost couldn’t bear to turn them. Sonali’s grief is palpable in every sentence and the weight of her anguish made it impossible for me to read more than a chapter of her story at at time.
We learn right from the beginning of the book that Sonali, a professor at Columbia University in New York, lost her parents, husband and two young sons in 2004 when the tsunami swept through the Sri Lankan resort where they were holidaying. She survives by clinging to a branch after being swept for miles in a torrent of water. Later she can’t fathom why she ever grabbed onto that branch. With so many people she loved dead, she wishes she was too. Her friends and family are on suicide watch for many months.
The section of the book that resonated with me were the passages of ‘what if’s.’ Sonali thinks of all the alternate decisions she and her family could have made leading up to the tsunami that would have kept them safe. My family and I were in Phuket when the tsunami struck and I too spent months grappling with the ‘what if’s.’ There were so many decisions big and small that we had made which kept us safe. Any one of those many choices, which seemed unimportant at the time, could have placed us right in the path of the wave like Sonali’s family.
Sonali’s story goes forward year by year after the tsunami and with each passing one she is able to resurrect more memories. But the story also goes back because as she remembers we are given a window into what her life was like before the tsunami and we come to know her husband, parents and children with all their gifts and foibles in an intimate way. This makes their death seem all the more tragic and Sonali’s grief becomes even more real to us.
For many years after 2004 our family members were frequently identified as tsunami survivors. Even now a decade later people will ask us about it. I suspect being a 2004 tsunami survivor is something that marks you for life. It certainly has marked Sonali with a heavy burden. It is a burden that weighs down anyone who reads her book because Sonali’s evocative and spare writing style leaves you no choice. Hopefully sharing her story with others has lightened Sonali’s burden at least a little bit.
Other posts about books……..