Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala


The stunned voices of friends and family floated about. An earthquake under the sea near Indonesia. The tectonic plates shifted. It’s the biggest natural disaster ever. A tsunami. Until now our killer had for me been nameless. This was the first time I’d ever heard the word. They talked numbers. A hundred thousand dead, two hundred thousand, a quarter of a million. I was unmoved. I cowered on that bed. It could be a million more for all I care, I thought. 

They meant nothing, those words, tsunami, tidal wave. Something came for us. I didn’t know what it was then, and I still didn’t. How can something so unknown do this? How can my family’s be dead? We were in our hotel room. 

I can’t live without them, I can’t. Can’t.

Why didn’t I die? Why did I cling to that branch? 

Pieces of me hovered in a murky netherworld, timeless day after timeless day.” (p. 38)

I clearly remember the winter of 2004. I walked into my classroom and asked my children how their Christmas break was. 

“We watched television,” many of them said. 

“What were you watching for so many days?” I asked.

“We were looking for our relatives,” they answered, “hoping they survived the tsunami.”

I was stunned into silence, in my ignorance thinking they had been idly watching something mindless. But, if Sonali herself didn’t know of tsunamis, how was I to know? 

Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband and her two sons to the wave which struck Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004. She survived to tell her story, and it is an honest, brutal, angry one. There are no words minced in her account of the tragedy from the very beginning, when she looks for her boys in the hospital and sees one lone child.

“The boy kept walking back and forth and crying. I wanted him to stop. Someone brought a large towel and wrapped it around his shoulders. Still the boy sobbed. But I didn’t speak to him. I didn’t try to comfort him. Stop blubbing, I thought, shut up. You only survived because you are fat. That’s why you didn’t die. You stayed alive in that water because you are so fucking fat. Vik and Malli didn’t have a chance. Just shut up.” (p. 18)

Her writing, to me, is shocking in its callousness toward others. 

When I lost my husband, and granted it was “only” my husband (not my parents and child, too) I did not have the luxury of waiting four years to return to my home and pick up the pieces. I had to immediately face the reality of my life, the bills, the mortgage, the need to continue going to work so my son and I could live. But, the duties of life are not what Sonali focuses on in her book.

In the first half of her book, she focuses on her ravaged emotions:  the wish to die, the depression, the way she wants to seek revenge on the Dutch people who bought her parents’ home as though they are somehow to blame. In the later half, she reminisces with sorrow over what could have been had her husband and sons lived.

I sympathize with her. I have tasted loss. But I am a judgmental person to a fault, and I found myself angry with Sonali for not knocking on her parents’ door as she fled the hotel room with her husband and boys, and for not searching the turbulent waters for her children when they were cast from the jeep. The disappointment I felt toward her in my perceived offenses kept me from enjoying a book which has been named:

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Books of the Year, a Christian Science Monitor Best Nonfiction Book, a Newsday Top 10 Books pick, a People magazine Top 10 pick, a Good Reads Best Book of the Year, and a Kirkus Best Nonfiction Book.

12 thoughts on “Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala”

  1. I found this book too sad – the publicity when this actually happened and the search for the children was so enormous that I did not think I could ever actually read this book.


  2. It's fascinating how some people's hearts are softened when touched by tragedy, others so hardened. I don't think I could read this book. I still have flashbacks to those days after March 11 trying to contact my brother and his family in Japan (they survived).


  3. Hmm…I have to imagine that it takes an intense bravery to write about this kind of tragedy. But I think that I would have a tough time with this one because of the sheer sadness and because of the author's seeming callousness.


  4. This sounds like a powerful read but I can see how some of the author's reactions will make me angry too, even if she was suffering. I would still try to read it some day.


  5. Sounds like quite an emotional read and I can understand getting angry at the author's inactions. Definitely makes you realize how differently everyone reacts in the face of danger and tragedy. I'm not sure I'll be reading this one, but I enjoyed your honesty about it 🙂


  6. You and I (and many others, of course) have had our share of grief. I don't feel compelled to read this memoir, as I do others that focus on death. Your reaction, however, reminds me of a book a read several years ago about a woman with cancer and how she whined about losing her ability to have more children. I wanted to shake the author and say she should be thankful she has the children she has and that she has recovered from cancer. I know she was thankful, but she was being honest and making a point. My reaction was too personal and tainted my overall enjoyment of her book.

    I am stunned that this tragedy took place almost a decade ago. Really? If I had to guess, I would have said 5 or 6 years ago, not 9!


  7. Bellezza,

    Can we enjoy a book or find value in a story when we don't like or agree with the protagonist's or narrator's motives and actions? I'm not sure. Sometimes I keep reading a book, or watching a show,despite the fact that the main character bothers me. It seems all the more difficult if you know it's non-fiction. I guess ultimately I would try to follow the adage about 'walking a mile in someone else's shoes' ….

    I'm drawn to stories about survival. But I'm also drawn to stories about people who show strength, resilience, and a strong moral centre. But, I'm not sure how strong I would be, if faced with such horrific events. How I would react and how I want to react might be very different….

    Someone I met not long ago did say though, “It'll either make you bitter or better.”

    You and many of your readers show admirable strength, perseverance, and resilience in the face of ill health and tragedy. A lesson for all of us. Thanks for making us 'think' again, Bellezza! Sorry….I've rambled on again…..

    Take care,


  8. I got this earlier this year but I have not read it. I hope to do that later this year. I found your revelation of Sonali Deraniyagala's action quite disturbing but I want to find out more.


  9. Her callousness towards others in that passage you quoted shocked me, too. I don't think I'd want to read this book now. I cannot stand listening to angry and hostile people. I understand her grief but other people, too, share a similiar grief, and I can't bear listening to people who show no compassion towards others.

    I remember that tsunami very well. My sister was working in a cruise ship that landed on that shore all the time and that's where they stayed for days before going back to sea. When the tsunami hit, we didn't hear from my sister for days and we were beside ourselves with worry. We learned later that their ship left exactly the day before the tsunami hit and they were at sea while it did. That was a very close call.


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