I finally finished Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, which I’d originally reviewed here. When I wrote that review, I had read only the first half of the book. Now that I’ve finished the entire thing, I’m still thinking about it. Wave is a book you read slowly, then spend a long time processing.
At first glance, Wave is a memoir of Deraniyagala’s experience losing her parents, husband, and sons in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, but the book struck me as being several memoirs in one: or, more accurately, a memoir that recounts the cyclic and spiraling cycles of grief. Grief isn’t something you get over, as if life after loss could ever be the same again. Wave describes the way in which grief goes through its own seasons. In the first half of Wave, Deraniyagala is beside herself with sorrow, harassing the tenants who move into her deceased parents’ house and endlessly Googling ways to kill herself. In the first half of Wave, you aren’t sure whether Deraniyagala is going to make it: yes, her body survived the tsunami that claimed her kin, but will she survive the aftermath of that maddening loss, body and soul?
There is no clear dividing line between the first half of the book and the second: there is no clear corner that Deraniyagala turns. But in the latter parts of the book, the focus seems to shift from what Deraniyagala lost to what she shared with her husband, sons, parents, and the friends who remain by her side as reconstructs a life after unspeakable loss. Gradually, the book isn’t about a wave of destruction but a swelling surge of remembrance.
There are parts of the latter half of the book–most memorably, an account of a whale-watching excursion in the very ocean that swallowed Deraniyagala’s family–that are hauntingly beautiful, with Deraniyagala longing for her husband, Steve, and sons, Vik and Malli, who she feels should be on the boat watching whales with her:
I shouldn’t be on this boat, I thought, as I nibbled on a ginger biscuit to stop feeling seasick. Vik never got to see a blue whale. I shouldn’t be out searching for whales when Vik can’t. It will be agony without him. I’ll have hell to pay.
Deraniyagala will have hell to pay, indeed: how can you do things alone that your lost family would have loved to have done with you? And yet on the whale-watching boat, Deraniyagala discovers that she is never alone. Not only are there whales, as blue and enormous as the sky, gliding through the water beneath her, but the persistence of memory means that Steve, Vik, and Malli are somehow gone but never far away:
As the first blow of a whale was sighted, our boat speeded up, and I was in our living room in London. Vik and I on the red sofa watching The Blue Planet. I could hear him catch his breath as two blue whales appear on the screen, impossibly huge even as the aerial camerawork dwarfs them in an infinite ocean. He twists his hair faster and faster as they cruise and dive.
Whales are huge and mysterious, easily inviting awe. As much as Deraniyagala cannot stand seeing whales without her husband and sons, she experiences a moment of tranquility and calm in the presence of these huge, aquatic beasts: creatures who live in the very element that proved to be so deadly.
Where were these whales when the sea came for us? I wonder. Were they in this same ocean? Did they feel a strangeness then? Another whale who was in the distance has come closer now. I hear a loud, low bellow as it exhales. Now the whale inhales. Resounding in this vastness I hear a doleful sigh.
There is something inexpressibly beautiful in Deraniyagala’s description of remembering her dead family while listing to whales breathe: a moment both intimate and awesome. I felt a bit guilty for finding spots of beauty in an otherwise harrowing story, but perhaps that is what made Deraniyagala’s memoir so memorable. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human life is fragile, but that survivors are so resilient, and a cruel world is somehow so beautiful. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human bodies pass away but that love never dies.