"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." So goes the first sentence of Ford Madox Ford's 1915 masterpiece, The Good Soldier.
It's a sentence that may spin in your mind while you read the opening pages of Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala's devastating new memoir. If hers is not the saddest story I've ever heard, it's the saddest I ever want to hear again. This book opens beneath you like a sinkhole.
Deraniyagala is an economist, originally from Sri Lanka, who teaches at the University of London and at Columbia. On the day after Christmas in 2004, she and her family were staying at a beach hotel on Sri Lanka's southern coast. That's the day, the world now knows, that an earthquake spawned a tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
The author saw it, or rather she saw something, coming. "Come out," she said to her husband, Steve, who was in the bathroom. "I want to show you something odd." The ocean looked closer. It looked foamier.
Before long they and their two young sons were running. There was no time to warn her parents, staying in the same hotel. The four of them made it into a Jeep, and were driving away, when the tsunami overtook them.
Her husband died in the churning water. So did their sons, ages 5 and 7. So, it happens, did her parents. The Jeep turned over on Deraniyagala, nearly crushing and drowning her. She survived, miraculously, by clinging to a tree limb.
Wave is a granular, tactile working through of grief, regret and survivor's guilt. It maintains a tight focus. Don't arrive here looking for statistics and a journalistic overview of the tsunami. This book contains nothing about tectonic plates, the pressure per inch of water or the numbers of the dead.
About her family, Deraniyagala thinks to herself: "When I had them, they were my pride, and now that I've lost them, I am full of shame. I was doomed all along, I am marked, there must be something very wrong about me." The first sections of Wave are largely about her plans for suicide. "I'll wait until all the bodies are found," she says. "Then I will kill myself." Her friends and family hide the kitchen knives. They keep watch over her for months.
Deraniyagala is a close observer of her own anger, more deranging than purifying. She feels guilty, too, that she mourns her husband and children more deeply than she does her parents. The dark places in Wave are made bearable, to some degree, by the author's gift for evoking her life before everything changed.
Her great realisation, she says, is that "I can only recover myself when I keep them near. If I distance myself from them, and their absence, I am fractured. I am left feeling I've blundered into a stranger's life." Deraniyagala would never use a bogus word like "healing." Her book is therapeutic because it isn't therapeutic at all.