Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala


The stunned voices of friends and family floated about. An earthquake under the sea near Indonesia. The tectonic plates shifted. It’s the biggest natural disaster ever. A tsunami. Until now our killer had for me been nameless. This was the first time I’d ever heard the word. They talked numbers. A hundred thousand dead, two hundred thousand, a quarter of a million. I was unmoved. I cowered on that bed. It could be a million more for all I care, I thought. 

They meant nothing, those words, tsunami, tidal wave. Something came for us. I didn’t know what it was then, and I still didn’t. How can something so unknown do this? How can my family’s be dead? We were in our hotel room. 

I can’t live without them, I can’t. Can’t.

Why didn’t I die? Why did I cling to that branch? 

Pieces of me hovered in a murky netherworld, timeless day after timeless day.” (p. 38)

I clearly remember the winter of 2004. I walked into my classroom and asked my children how their Christmas break was. 

“We watched television,” many of them said. 

“What were you watching for so many days?” I asked.

“We were looking for our relatives,” they answered, “hoping they survived the tsunami.”

I was stunned into silence, in my ignorance thinking they had been idly watching something mindless. But, if Sonali herself didn’t know of tsunamis, how was I to know? 

Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband and her two sons to the wave which struck Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004. She survived to tell her story, and it is an honest, brutal, angry one. There are no words minced in her account of the tragedy from the very beginning, when she looks for her boys in the hospital and sees one lone child.

“The boy kept walking back and forth and crying. I wanted him to stop. Someone brought a large towel and wrapped it around his shoulders. Still the boy sobbed. But I didn’t speak to him. I didn’t try to comfort him. Stop blubbing, I thought, shut up. You only survived because you are fat. That’s why you didn’t die. You stayed alive in that water because you are so fucking fat. Vik and Malli didn’t have a chance. Just shut up.” (p. 18)

Her writing, to me, is shocking in its callousness toward others. 

When I lost my husband, and granted it was “only” my husband (not my parents and child, too) I did not have the luxury of waiting four years to return to my home and pick up the pieces. I had to immediately face the reality of my life, the bills, the mortgage, the need to continue going to work so my son and I could live. But, the duties of life are not what Sonali focuses on in her book.

In the first half of her book, she focuses on her ravaged emotions:  the wish to die, the depression, the way she wants to seek revenge on the Dutch people who bought her parents’ home as though they are somehow to blame. In the later half, she reminisces with sorrow over what could have been had her husband and sons lived.

I sympathize with her. I have tasted loss. But I am a judgmental person to a fault, and I found myself angry with Sonali for not knocking on her parents’ door as she fled the hotel room with her husband and boys, and for not searching the turbulent waters for her children when they were cast from the jeep. The disappointment I felt toward her in my perceived offenses kept me from enjoying a book which has been named:

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Books of the Year, a Christian Science Monitor Best Nonfiction Book, a Newsday Top 10 Books pick, a People magazine Top 10 pick, a Good Reads Best Book of the Year, and a Kirkus Best Nonfiction Book.