It is the day after Christmas. An accomplished academic is decompressing in a Sri Lankan coastal paradise with her husband, her two boys, and a friend, when someone notices an ominous wave outside their hotel window. In an instant, the party is out the door, running for their lives. They jump into a Jeep, which races to outpace the pursuing tide. Within moments, the Jeep fills with water, then is knocked onto its side. Water engulfs. Water pounds. Finally, water recedes. The professor emerges dazed, bruised, half-naked. Alive, but utterly alone.
Gripping scenario, that, the stuff of popcorn dreams. But this is life’s waking nightmare as it transpired for Sonali Deraniyagala in 2004, when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake triggered the Indian Ocean tsunami that took the lives of her husband, Steve, her 7- and 5-year-old sons, Vikram and Malli, and her parents, along with some 230,000 others in 14 countries.
There are no stats or news reports in “Wave,” other than a gobsmacking London-tabloid headline that accompanied a photo of Deraniyagala’s sons: “I watched as my whole family was swept away.” Is there no shame? To be sure, a torrent of shame floods this bracing and ruthlessly self-confrontational memoir. But the shame is owned by the author herself, who shouldered the unfathomable burden of a grieving woman convinced that, in the final count, she failed the mother test. “In those terrifying moments, my children were as helpless as I was,” she writes, tabloids be damned, “and I couldn’t be there for them. . . . Their helplessness, I can’t bear to consider . . .”
But consider she does. Deraniyagala reverses the clock in zigzagging increments, inching backward (and sometimes forward again) from that cataclysmic day to family life in London, from her Cambridge-days courtship with Steve, back to her childhood in Sri Lanka. As the membranous memories come into focus, we follow her aching rehabilitation from a state of almost willful insanity in the wake of impossible loss to something akin to the high-functioning University of London economist she was before December 2004. (Deraniyagala is now a research scholar at Columbia University.)
When the tsunami receded, Deraniyagala was discovered spinning in mud, an unnerving embodiment of the self-destructive oscillations that would characterize her behavior in the ensuing months. Despite being under surveillance by relatives, who rightly feared for her life, she stabbed herself with a butter knife, bashed her head against a bedboard, Googled methods of suicide, and hallucinated on cocktails of alcohol and pills.
In “Wave,’’ Deraniyagala reinhabits this tempestuous period with graphic immediacy, exposing “the outlandish truth of me” in terse, impressionistic thought waves that make manifest the tenuous line separating grief from rage and cruelty. In a disturbing episode as the first anniversary of the tsunami approached, she terrorizes a family that has rented out her parents’ old home in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “The Dutch family, settling in there like nothing’s happened,” she bristles, pounding on the gates and ringing their doorbell at 2 a.m.
The naked ferocity of the passages is such that the snippets of the author’s youth and collegiate days limned in the book’s final act arrive as something of an anticlimax. But that may also be a function of the author’s deeper interest in leaving a palpable legacy of her lost boys. And this she accomplishes, triumphantly. Steve, Vikram, and Malli spring from these pages with an exuberance and dimensionality that lifts “Wave” from memoir into some virtual realm of documentation.
Jan Stuart, author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.