“I know now that we never get over great losses,” Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author Gail Caldwell once wrote. Instead, she says, “We absorb them.... We tell the story to get them back, to capture the traces of footfalls through the snow.” And sometimes these stories become fodder for the very best of memoirs.
One of the most remarkable memoirs of early 2013 is Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. Its backdrop is horrific: Deraniyagala lost her entire family – husband, two young sons, and parents – in the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in late 2004. One moment the group was relaxing in hotel rooms – chatting, reading, preparing for an outing – and the next they were engulfed by water. Only Deraniyagala survived.
In the early pages of “Wave,” Deraniyagala’s grief is raw, desperate. But as time passes, she begins to mentally re-create the world as it was. Using language that is lovely in its unsparing simplicity, Deraniyagala unfolds a vibrant picture of her life, pre-tsunami.
Her two sons (Vikram, an earnest 8-year-old who adored cricket and sea eagles, and Malli, a fanciful 5-year-old who preferred pink tutus and imaginary friends) shine as gentle beacons of life and promise. Loving portraits of her husband, Steve (a fellow academic and the easygoing yin to her more anxious yang), and her parents (comfortable members of Sri Lanka’s elite) hedge her story with warmth and flavor.
In bits and pieces, Deraniyagala eventually allows herself to recall the beauty of it all: the house at dinner time, warm with the aroma of garlic and onion; the boys eating tangerines on a red sofa, dropping the pits in a blue bowl; her mother sitting at the piano as Malli plays “Silent Night”; the early-morning pleasure of fresh, hot bagels shared with her husband.
Deraniyagala somehow manages – in the face of death – to vividly remind us of all that is most to be valued in life.
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