Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Honestly, I was fairly mesmerized by Deraniyagala’s story. Like so many others, I can’t imagine what she went through and continues to go through. It’s a difficult book to review beyond saying that she writes beautifully and candidly and is absolutely mesmerizing.

On the one hand, I appreciate all the little details that cry out in her story, because it is distinctly not disaster porn. I hate that term, but bare with me. There is this whole thing in society where people just love to stare in the tragedy and disaster of another person. They love to ask questions that are frankly disturbing to think about let alone remember the experience of. They are obnoxious and mentioned in various ways in different books I’ve read, the most notable being the way that reporters only wanted to talk to women and the ways they had been raped following Liberia’s peace settlement in Mighty Be Our Powers. This is completely unnecessary, despicable, and retraumatizing.

I should mention that I picked up this book as my Read Harder task 5, a book about a natural disaster. I could not force myself to go that far into another Hurricane Katrina story which seemed about the only other options I could reasonably find. I know that this memoir isn’t about the tsunami itself, but it is. It’s the bigger story of the tsunami. It’s more than a huge wave rolling in one day and destroying so much. It’s the actual toll it took. It’s the way it really lasts forever.

The thing about these natural disasters and the people they happen to is that a part of them never stops happening. I grew up in Miami and was in middle school for Hurricane Andrew and then I moved to Diamondhead, Ms about six years after it had demolished the Mississippi Gulf Coast along with New Orleans. I had the ability to go and do disaster relief in New Jersey, of all places, when Super Storm Sandy hit and I remember them asking us how we came out of the despair of it. The group I was with were mostly Katrina survivors too. I remember talking to them about how it marked time, how there was the world before the storm and the world after the storm. We talked about the collective memory of it and how the town went through it together. How that makes it different.

And now this. Deraniyagala has parts of the same story, but her tragedy goes deeper. She was on vacation with her family. She didn’t live there all the time but she wasn’t a foreigner either. She is a part of the collective memory when she returns but she doesn’t live in it the way we were in Miami nor does she want to. My family was fortunate in that our damage was entirely structural. The loss of her family is what really marks the story of this tsunami as apart from the hurricane stories I grew up with and shared among Katrina and Sandy survivers. I imagine it is similarly different with earthquake survivors.

Like the hurricane, the tsunami washed ashore and let. Unlike a hurricane, there was no advanced notice. It just appeared and people ran for their lives. I’ve seen documentaries and read a few other books that involve the tsunami, so I was aware of the running, the people who were separated, finding bodies for months. It’s been over a decade and I know that image isn’t foreign to anyone who watches news and was an adult at that time. But this memoir puts into reality. It’s the difference between learning about WWII in history and then reading the Diary of Anne Frank in literature.

Still, a big part of what sets this book apart from those I’ve read on hurricanes or what my expectations had been, is how far reaching it is. It is not just a thing that happened in her life and she eventually moves on. It marked her life. It stole from her something that can never be replaced. Life is dealing with the loss now. Though my son didn’t die in a natural disaster, I can relate on this portion. Of course, I don’t presume that “I know” or any of those things how she feels. Deraniyagala’s loss is greater than mine, but I just want to say that I was relieved to find myself not the only one who feels the loss so far away.

My first son was born a preemie and only lived 15 days. I think about him all the time. That was twelve years ago. I remember his birthday. I remember when he should have started school. I remember that my second son should have had a built in best friend, an available co-conspirator. I feel bad for him when he feels this loneliness that I had never planned for him. I constantly wish things would have worked out differently but I have long since stopped blaming myself for the events of that day. Or anyone else, for that matter. But still. This happened and it colors my life in different ways. I remember conversations with people who wanted to encourage me to have kids when they saw me and my husband out without one. How I had wanted to scream at them. I’ve even turned on people the way Deraniyagala eventually discusses. I’ve hit them with it out of rage for the nonchalant way they assume that they know better for my life.

Anyway, the point is that this book is about the wave and it isn’t. It’s about the way that it rolled in and the effect that it had on the area that it hit. It’s also about the human toll in a way that isn’t just numbers. It’s about the way a moment can upturn your life and it not be a good thing. It’s beautifully written. Deraniyagala shares everything from the moment it happened to her internal monologue as she breaks down to the almost healing. I don’t think we ever really heal from this.

If you aren’t sure what to read for task 5 and don’t want to read about Hurricane Katrina, this is a good choice, especially if you read women’s memoir as much as I do. Add it to your Goodreads or Litsy TBR.

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