Wave is at once an easy and a very difficult book to read. It moves at first as relentlessly as the tsunami that sweeps away Sonali Deraniyagala’s family – her husband Steve, her two sons, Vik and Malli, and her parents. “I thought nothing of it at first,” she says, in the flat monotone that persists, unnervingly, through every emotionally harrowing page. “The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual. That was all.” Because we already know what’s happening, there’s no suspense, only a brief interval of dramatic irony as she and her companions watch and wonder—and then helpless vicarious panic and horror as they turn from the window and try to outrun the water. The next time we see the hotel, it’s “flattened”:
There were no walls standing, it was as though they’d been sliced off the floors. Only those clay-tiled floors remained, large footprints of rooms, thin corridors stretching out in all directions. Fallen trees were everywhere, the surrounding forest had flown apart. As if there’d been a wildfire, all the trees were charred. A signboard fallen in the dirt said Yala Safari Beach Hotel. I stumbled about this shattered landscape. I stubbed my toe on this ruin.
On the drive there, she reports, “we had to stop often, so I could vomit.”
“I stumbled about”: the literal disorientation she describes is also an apt image for how she feels in her life after the shockingly abrupt loss of the family that had shaped it. The narrative itself becomes episodic, associative; it’s personal, not logical. Her world, after all, is no longer rational. The most mundane details become bewilderingly painful:
There were all those first times. The first time I came downstairs in my aunt’s house, frightened, knowing I wouldn’t see a heap of shoes by the front door, as there was at home. The first time I walked on a Colombo street and couldn’t bear to glimpse a child, a ball. The first time I visited a friend and was nearly physically sick. Steve and I had been here with the boys just weeks before, my children’s fingerprints were on her wall. The first time I saw money, I was with my friend David, who wanted to buy a comb, having come from England without one. I trembled as I peered at that hundred-rupee note in his hand. The last time I saw one of those, I had a world.
There was the first time I saw a paradise flycatcher. I thought then that I should never have allowed my friends to open the curtains in my room. I had been much safer in blackness. Now sunlight splintered my eyes, and that familiar bird trailed its fiery feathers along the branches of the tamarind tree outside. No sooner I saw it, I turned away. Now look what’s happened, I thought. I’ve seen a bird. I’ve seen a flycatcher, when all the birds in the world should be dead.
She makes no pretense of heroism, offers no inspiring stories of coping. But there’s no self-pity, either, in her account of how unmoored she became: “They don’t want me to drink. Some cheek, I fumed. . . . Then suddenly every evening I was drunk.” She takes pills—too many pills—and mixes them with alcohol, enjoying the hallucinatory results: “My world gone in an instant, I need to be insane.” She hardly knows who she is anymore:
Mum. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I was their mum. . . . Was I really? Was it me who could predict a looming earache from the colour of their snot, who surfed the Internet with them looking for great white sharks, and who cuddled them in blue towels when they stepped out of the bath?
I know it was me, of course, but that knowing is cloudy and even startling at times. Strange. For one thing, they are dead, so what am I doing alive?
Inevitably, though just as irrationally, she blames herself: “I failed them. In those terrifying moments, my children were as helpless as I was, and I couldn’t be there for them, and how they must have wanted me.” “I might feel more like their mother,” she thinks, “if I was constantly weeping and screaming and tearing my hair out and clawing the earth.” But as Wave shows, you don’t need to rise to that pitch of hysteria to prove the extremity of your grief. Its effects are all the more painfully evident because Wave offers no resolution, no uplifting conclusion, no epiphany. Time passes. Some things get easier, but hidden dangers still lurk in the most ordinary places: “I can’t touch Steve’s oyster knife. I dare not open his cookbooks. It would be too much to see a chili oil stain on a barbecued squid recipe or a trace of a mustard seed on the aubergine curry page of his Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book.”
I was propelled swiftly through the book by the directness of Deraniyagala’s voice, and by her sharp, often startlingly poetic images. Yet I was also uneasy about the uncomfortable voyeurism invited by this aestheticized mourning. I had a similar response to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking:
It is intensely personal, and thus poignant and compelling in the intimacy of its revelations about Didion’s grief, but thus also the reading experience seemed to me oddly voyeuristic—which made me puzzle over why someone would want to publish such an account. I didn’t notice that this issue is ever explicitly addressed, though I suppose we can fill in some good guesses, such as the therapeutic effects of writing it all out, the opportunity to pay a kind of literary tribute to her husband, or just the idea that writing is, after all, what a writer does.
Deraniyagala did in fact write Wave as part of her healing process, so her motivation is transparent. It’s harder to understand why I would read it—and why, once I began, it became so gripping. Teju Cole asks and answers a version of this question in the New Yorker:
That Deraniyagala wrote down what happened is understandable. But why would some unconcerned individual, someone who has not been similarly shattered, wish to read this book? Yet read it we must, for it contains solemn and essential truths.
He doesn’t say exactly what he thinks those truths are—is that because they would inevitably sound like clichés? Life is uncertain; death is a part of life; cherish the ones you love. Kerry Clare, in her excellent post on Wave, suggests that we read it “To be stirred . . . to have our quiet disturbed. Perhaps this is why we should read this, or any book.”
Is there also an aesthetic reason to read these books, even some kind of artistic obligation? (Is that even a relevant or appropriate question about the narrative of someone else’s actual suffering?) As it happens, just before I read Wave I read Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” in which the main character Laura (“the artistic one”), forbidden to walk through the impoverished neighborhood that borders on her elegant home, believes she should do so nonetheless, because “one must go everywhere; one must see everything.” I think that by the end of the story her idea is shown to be wrong, or at least inadequate, because to her it means treating suffering as spectacle rather than entering into the human reality of it. The story also suggests, though (to me, at least) that art must embrace both the beauty and the tragedy of life—both what’s in and what’s outside of the garden. I can’t decide if this story has anything to do with Wave, really, but I kept thinking about it as I read, perhaps because Deraniyagala’s book is very beautiful, even though the story it tells is terrible.
I also kept thinking (perhaps with equal irrelevance) about the excerpt I recently read with my class from Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, especially this bit:
Like Leontius, the young Athenian in Plato, I presume that you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some insight, some flicker of self-knowledge—a moral, or lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world: some such information. I don’t discount the possibility, but when it comes to genocide, you already know right from wrong. The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it. The horror, as horror, interests me only insofar as a precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy.
Perhaps it is not wrong or voyeuristic to be an audience to stories of suffering after all: perhaps what would be wrong would be to ignore them, as if they have nothing to do with me or my world. Wave is different in a crucial way, though: the tsunami is not an “offense”—nobody is responsible. So is there anything, really, to understand? There certainly isn’t for Deraniyagala: there’s no meaning, only feeling—and remembering, which becomes here not just agony but also art, which is always, implicitly, a form of joy:
Now I sit in this garden in New York, and I hear them, jubilant, gleeful, on our lawn.