Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala

This is a devastating, heart-breaking memoir about grief. If you can't handle this kind of story, stop right here.

Sonali Deraniyagala opens up the book in Yala, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, where she was vacationing with her husband, two sons, and parents over the Christmas holidays of 2004. Within a few moments, the massive tsunami took away the lives of everyone she loved most dearly, and she nearly died herself. Can you imagine what this would be like? Savoring the post-holiday pleasures with your children, who were playing with their Christmas gifts, and your husband is sitting on the toilet reading? Suddenly you see a wave rising up way too high and approaching your hotel and you tell everyone to run. They ran so fast that they didn't even have time to warn her parents, whose room was next door. Not that it would have mattered.

Steve, Vikram, and Malli
Sri Lankan-born Deraniyagala lost her beloved sons Vik and Malli and her English husband Steve. And parents who she loved dearly. Of course she wished she were dead too.

Over the next several years, she passes through the many stages of grief...total depression and devastation, anger, bitterness, alcoholism, you name it. She seemed well cared for by her friends and family, but we don't really get to know any of them well in this book.

It's clear that she had money, as the family did not sell her parents' home in Colombo (where she grew up). After initially renting it out to a Dutch family (who Deraniyagala tormented during one of her manic phases of grief), they left it standing empty so they could return to it. She did the same with their house in London--it was kept as a sort of monument to her family, with the boys' things untouched as they left them. In fact, she didn't even return to the London house until nearly 4 years after they had died. Not everyone would have the resources to do this. Most people would have their grief compounded by having to give up those memories far more quickly than they were ready to.

Deraniyagala's family
I remember when my friend Laurie lost her son Zacary at age four, devastating enough as it is, but then she and her husband had to sell the house where Zacary lived (because of money problems) ...shedding those precious memories of him in that house. That is what Deraniyagala clings to, still.

At first she doesn't want to face her memories, but gradually she starts recollecting the wonderful details of her children...athletic, intelligent Vikram who was interested in the natural world, and the younger son, Malli, who was expressive, sensitive, and liked to dress up in a tutu. She looks back on her husband's childhood in inner-city London, growing up in a council flat, and how she met him at Cambridge. I loved how Steve would drive through Europe with his father on his lorry runs, sampling the cuisine along the way...and later he would become the chef in their family. They loved to go to the London fish markets early in the morning to purchase the freshest catch. He adopted Sri Lanka as his own, and they spent as much time there as possible.

After the wave
My only quibble with this book is that she sometimes uses run-on sentences divided only by commas. I'm not sure if this was a deliberate stylistic choice but I'm guessing it must have been, I found that to be distracting. (See what I mean??)

Deraniyagala doesn't address the rest of the 230,000 people who died in that tsunami. As she returns to Yala over and over again, she paces the destruction left behind...but she doesn't talk about the way the wave affected the community. She doesn't talk about all the people whose loved ones died and who didn't have the resources or support she did.

Tsunami damage
That's not what this book was about. It's about grief, pure and simple, and how one woman finds her way through it. It's searingly honest and candid...and brave.

A few days after the tsunami hit in Japan, Deraniyagala took a trip out deep into the Indian Ocean, south of the southern tip of Sri Lanka...the sea that divides Sri Lanka from Antarctica. She went on a whale-watching trip and saw great blue whales breaching. Her son Vikram had always wanted to see a blue whale, and at first she felt that it was unfair that she should be able to do so without him...but then she let herself savor the magical moment on his behalf.

Some reviewers have wanted more hope or resolution in this book, but that was not the purpose. Grief never resolves. It can fade away gradually, but it endures.

Monday, June 10, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

This is the third novel by Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, both of which I loved (and gave five stars to). While The Kite Runner was a wonderful, heart-breaking story of boys' friendship, I found A Thousand Splendid Suns to be even more poignant and beautiful because it was about two women who were thrown together in marriage to the same men, but eventually forged a strong bond and sisterhood. 

Hosseini's new novel steps away from the classic form and ambitiously takes on multiple perspectives and stories about family, both biological and chosen, and how one choice can change several people's lives. 

It starts out in the 1950s as a story about a 10-year-old boy, Abdullah, and his 3-year-old sister, Pari, who are closely intertwined to each other. Their mother died giving birth to Pari, so Abdullah had the primary responsibility of raising his sister. Their father remarried a woman, Parwana, who didn't have much love for the children, as she was nursing a dark secret of her own. Living in a small Afghani village, their father struggled to put food on the table and the previous winter one of their younger children died from the cold. When given a chance to change this situation, he sold Pari to a wealthy family in Kabul, his brother-in-law's employers. Abdullah and Pari were torn apart tragically.

Hosseni is a brilliant writer--he paints a vivid landscape on the page and his characters are complex, multilayered, and interesting. I wanted to know more about Abdullah and Pari, but when Pari grows into an older child, her mother takes her off to Paris and we don't hear anything about her until she is older. Her mother is a narcissistic woman, and Pari doesn't learn the real truth about her origins or her adopted father until many years after her mother dies. Pari's adopted father is a cold, aloof man, who has his own secret reason for his unhappiness, but found joy in Pari as a young child.

And this is my only fault with this book...it's like a series of loosely interwoven stories, each chapter starting with a different perspective and setting. I am not a fan of short stories for this reason...I want to sink my teeth into a story, and short stories are just not long enough for me to get immersed. The plot jumped around from the Afghani village to Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to Greece, and some of the characters I preferred to others. Many I just wanted more of...especially Pari and Abdullah.

Each character lacked love or experienced pain in relationships, much of them with their family members. But love is also found in unusual and subtle ways.

This novel is not nearly as tragic as Hosseini's first two, and some of the characters find redemption and reconciliation in the end. Beyond the colorful storytelling and wonderful stories of families and friendship, And the Mountains Echoed opens the world to Afghanistan, not just as a war-torn country of tragedy, but one of real relationships, heartbreak, and love.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Towelhead, by Alicia Erian

This book's been on my bookshelf for some time--I must have picked it up at a used book sale--and I was intrigued by the title. It takes place in the 1980s, when Bush sets us on our first war in Iraq. Jasira, age 13, is sent to live with her Lebanese dad in Texas after her mom becomes concerned that her boyfriend is more interested in her daughter than he is in her.

Everywhere she goes, Jasira craves love and affection, but she gets it nowhere. She's bullied at school (Texas, after all) and has no friends. Her father is strict, unaffectionate, and cold. Her mom is a drama queen and wants everything to be about her.

Jasira seeks out affection in the unhealthiest of places--with the racist neighbor next door (twice her age or older) and by developing a sexual relationship with a boy at school.

I found this story to be extremely sad and disturbing, evidence of what happens when a child does not experience healthy love and affection. Jasira has no understanding of what is good, healthy, and loving, and she makes bad choices constantly.

The end brings some positive resolution, but I can't help but think that if she were real, Jasira would continue to make bad choices and seek out love in the wrong places.