From the Archives: Sonali Deraniyagala's Memoir of Surviving 2004's Tsunami

Sonali-Deraniyagala-Wave-credit-Ann-BillingsleyLast week marked the 10-year anniversary of the massive tsunami that roared across the Indian Ocean and devasted the coastlines of fourteen countries. One of the deadlist natural disasters in modern history, the tsunami took the lives of more than 230,000 people, including the parents, husband, and two children of Sonali Deraniyagala, who was vacationing with her family at a Sri Lankan beach resort.

Sonali's devastating account of the tsunami, Wave, was an Amazon Best of the Month "Spotlight" pick in March of 2013. It was also a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and was selected as a 2013 Best Book of the Year by Amazon, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, People, and Goodreads. 

This post first appeared in March of 2013.

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Memoir seems to be the theme of this month's Best Books of the Month list, which boasts an amazing collection of brave and deeply personal explorations. In fact, brave is the buzz word of the month, appearing in a few of our editors' reviews for March. These compelling first-person stories--all written by women, and mostly about overcoming hardship--include Sheryl Sandberg's bold and inspiring Lean In; Christa Parravani's "brave, raw, and ultimately uplifting" Her; and Emily Rapp's "magnificently written" The Still Point of the Turning World.

But the book that tops our list is the one that left many of us shaking our heads in awe, Sonali Deraniyagala's incredible Wave.

Some books unfold with obvious menace, suggesting, “This won’t end well.” Wave declares on page one--“the ocean looked a little closer”--this won’t even start well. But I’m urging you, dear reader, not to look away.

In an unblinking act of storytelling, Deraniyagala ruthlessly chronicles the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that horrifically snatched from her all that mattered. Throughout this fierce and furious book, I kept wondering how someone who lost so much could write about it with such power, economy and grace. At first, she shrieks and grieves openly, angrily; for years she remains stunned and staggered, shamed by “the outlandish truth of me.” Then, slowly, she allows herself to remember, sharing vivid glimpses of her past.

WaveWe see, hear, and smell two rowdy little boys, their brotherly scuffling, their muddy shoes and grass stains. By confronting and recreating moments that make us laugh and weep, we accept their absence and root for the author not to give up. As Deraniyagala's unthinkable loss becomes “distilled,” she finds herself “no longer cradled by shock.” She survives. And she does so by allowing herself to ache and to remember. By keeping the pain close, by embracing the unthinkable, she keeps alive her precious memories.

Difficult to describe, tricky to recommend, this is a bold and wondrous book. In a wounded voice that manages to convey the snide, sarcastic, funny, and fatalistic personality that survives beneath the suffering, Deraniyagala slowly pieces together the elements that represent the life--the lives--she lost. And she magically brings them back. For us, for her, for them. So brave, so beautiful, in these pages Deraniyagala’s family is brilliantly alive. And so is she. 

 


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