Wave details Sonali Deraniyagala’s experience of losing her family in a single instant, and her tug of war between remembering and forgetting in order to make sense of her world. In 2004, Deraniyagala (an economist at the University of London), her husband Stephen Lissenburgh, and their two young sons aged seven and five visited her parents in Sri Lanka for their Christmas holidays. On Boxing Day, as they were preparing to leave their beachside hotel, the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, separating Deraniyagala from her family. She never saw them again.
(Sonali Deraniyagala’s husband Stephen and her sons Vikram and Malli. Picture from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/09/tsunami-terrible-toll)
In the immediate aftermath of her loss, Deraniyagala plotted her strategy, deciding to wait till the bodies were found and then kill herself. Her relatives and friends watched over her, hiding all the kitchen knives, tapping on the bathroom door if she took a long time. She turned to alcohol and sleeping pills, getting drunk every evening, Googling ways to kill herself. She was wary of remembering, fearing she would slip up and think they were alive, but even the most fragmentary details—a flower, a dimple in a child’s cheek—brought them
back. She stayed on in Sri Lanka for nearly two years; only in 2008, did she step into the family’s home in London.
Memoirs which channel pain into a teachable moment often make readers uneasy, but nothing is held up for the audience’s benefit in Wave, which is an intensely private chronicle of the author’s attempt to deal with her loss. This book is in essence a distillation of the truths and memories (voluntary and involuntary) that matter to Deraniyagala, and much of it is unbearably moving. “When I had them, they were my pride, and now that I’ve lost them, I am full of shame,” she says. There is no solution or end to her grief—the absences expand, and there’s a fresh sadness imagining her family in the now. If there’s any “lesson”, it’s the one learned by the author, who understands that she can never be true to herself if she distances herself from them, for it is the remembrance of things past that keeps her whole. This memoir-not-a-memoir is a record of her remembering, one that we’re privileged to read.
And here’s an interview with Deraniyagala over at Hazlitt.