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.


  1. I just finished reading your book and thank you for having such courage in showing such vulnerability on each page. I am deeply sorry for your losses.

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