Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is not an easy read. I’ll say that again (it definitely bears repeating): Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is not an easy read. It is, however, an important one. An exceptional one. And a profoundly moving one.
We often throw these terms around – moving, heartbreaking, brutally honest – but Wave truly merits them. ‘Brutally’ honest is most apt, because this is ferocious, pummelling us with the same force as the unrelenting tsunami that took Deraniyagala’s husband, children and parents, all in one moment. As a reading experience, it’s about as bleak as perusing The Bell Jar. While knocking back absinthe. And listening to Leonard Cohen.
It is also a magnificent example of the power of art to immortalise. Wave never shies away from the pain of loss, the kind of grief that can hardly be borne, but as well as documenting her ordeal in starkly raw terms, Deraniyagala beautifully resurrects the people who were torn away from her.
This is a double-whammy for the reader. No sooner have we begun to sympathise with her horrifying plight as the ‘wild statistical outlier’, then we too are being charmed by theatrical five-year-old Malli, curious seven-year-old Vik and cheeky-chappy East Ender economist Steve, as well as by a perfect family life divided between London bustle and Sri Lankan exoticism.
She paints this existence so vividly that after a while, we do not merely empathise with her lurches into grief; we experience them with her. We miss Malli, and Vik, and Steve, and her parents, and school projects, and car trips, and holidays, and everyday, unthinking normality almost as much as she does.
And yet this is also the glimmer of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel: by capturing them so faithfully, she rescues them from that agonisingly careless fate, bringing them into our lives, introducing them to strangers across the world, and ensuring they will never be forgotten. Not just as statistics, but as people, as lives lived.
For Deraniyagala, this is also a form of salvation. She gradually works her way through crippling depression, alcoholism and a bout of savage madness (one of the book’s very, very black comic sections involves the ‘haunting’ of an unsuspecting Dutch family) until she shifts from only being able to cope without any mention of her lost ones, to needing to experience the past in order to move forward.
Hers can never be a life without some form of agony, but ‘writing is a much better quality of agony than trying to forget,’ she said in a recent interview, and this memoir became a crucial outlet for her. For us, it is catharsis in its purest form, an evocative, unforgettable portrait of humanity that gives as much as it takes away.