In December 2004, when some of the places I had visited and loved in Sri Lanka were hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami, I watched from afar in horror. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Among the casualties: Sonali Deraniyagala's two children, her husband and her parents.
Deraniyagala's new book, Wave, is, most profoundly, an answer to the question of how one can hold on to the knowledge of a world that preceded disaster. Deraniyagala has to get to that world by remembering, but in the immediate aftermath of her loss, she can hardly bear to think of her spirited Sri Lankan-English sons, Vikram and Malli, or her fun-loving English husband, Stephen Lissenburgh.
In the book' opening scenes, Deraniyagala is vacationing with her family in Yala, a national park in her native Sri Lanka, when the sea approaches, foaming suspiciously. She flees her hotel, running with one child on either side of her, her husband just behind, passing her parents' room with no time to warn them. The four of them leap into a jeep with some others and speed away from the sea, but not fast enough. It overturns. Deraniyagala survives by clinging to a branch. She emerges from the water, but the rest of her family vanishes.
Before her is an apocalyptic version of her family's beloved Yala. "I saw then the toppled trees everywhere," she writes. "I could make those out, trees on the ground with their roots sticking up. What is this, a swamp? I was in an immense bog-land. Everything was one color, brown, reaching far. This didn't look like Yala, where the ground is dry and cracked and covered in green shrub. What is this knocked-down world? The end of time?"
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In the water's wake, she sits in shock, avoiding the evidence that her family might be gone. As time passes, she drinks, pops pills and researches ways to kill herself. She fights not to re-enter a world in which the absence of her family will be obvious; then she battles to keep their home unchanged. Their faces alternatively blur and sharpen as she strategizes. How best to hold them? At a distance? Or as close as she can? Which will make things more tolerable?
The book shifts between Colombo, Sri Lanka, and London, and then Colombo, London and New York (where Deraniyagala is now a research scholar at Columbia University), and ultimately to other destinations as she travels through pain with friends and family at her side. While most sections are marked with the years of their present action — Deraniyagala's temporal distance from the wave — most of the time that action takes the form of remembrance. She narrates how spaces, people and objects trigger her memory, and investigates through what devices she can contend with her new consciousness — a consciousness in which she feels not only responsible for the deaths of her family but also surrounded by their irrepressible spirit.
One of the simple beauties of Deraniyagala's prose is her drift between tenses. She remembers her remembering, then gives us her mind moving, in the present tense, to an image of one of her loved ones. They are with her still: her costume-wearing youngest, Malli; her food-loving husband, Stephen; her bird-watching oldest, Vikram. Each springs to vivid life through the particular window of her mourning.
Sometimes these images knock her to the ground, but in other moments she cannot help but return to their family's shared appreciation of the beautiful world around them. She lets them rejoin her. "Maybe it is not so overwhelming after all, to dissolve the divide between now and then," she writes.
As the book progresses, Deraniyagala and the prose itself begin to re-engage with the natural world, and with the sensory pleasures in which her boys had reveled: rare and beautiful birds, forbidden sweets, prawn curry, hot bagels, landscapes, cricket. The story opens up, and the narrative travels from the interior of her mourning to its exterior.
Many of the most moving passages find her traveling through time and space: the family's untouched London home, years later; whale-watching; sub-arctic Sweden. Descriptions of place are often stunning in their beauty. She imagines how they would have loved a certain elaborate spiderweb, and in that sub-Arctic's "deserted shores," offers us a glimpse of "a lake of ice, surrounded by naked birches sheathed in frozen fog, each branch glowing like a stag's antlers in velvet in that mellow light."
The beauty they would have loved burns the truth of her life to its simplest vision, something beyond pain: "Immersed in that endless white, I knew I was their mother, my horror dormant, or not that relevant even."
Although for much of the book, we are privileged to be with her as she conjures and reconjures her joyous family, what emerges from this wizardry most clearly is, of course, Deraniyagala herself — carrying within her present life another gorgeously remembered one.
By Sonali Deraniyagala
Knopf. 228 pp. $24.