by Sonali Deraniyagala
On the morning of December 26, 2004, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the tsunami she miraculously survived. In this brave and searingly frank memoir, she describes those first horrifying moments and her long journey since. She has written an engrossing, unsentimental, beautifully poised account: as she struggles through the first months following the tragedy, furiously clenched against a reality that she cannot face and cannot deny; and then, over the ensuing years, as she emerges reluctantly, slowly allowing her memory to take her back through the rich and joyous life she’s mourning, from her family’s home in London, to the birth of her children, to the year she met her English husband at Cambridge, to her childhood in Colombo; all the while learning the difficult balance between the almost unbearable reminders of her loss and the need to keep her family, somehow, still alive within her.
Y'know, I finished this book over a year ago, but I think I'm only just now understanding it. The light bulb came on when I read Film Crit Hulk's essay on Gamergate. Here is the relevant quote (de-capitalized for your reading convenience):
One of the first things we are taught in writing is that good stories are about character arcs. People start as these flawed, incomplete persons. And through the story they make choices, learn lessons and become better people along the way, thus completing an arc.
And you would expect that from this book, even though it's nonfiction and the 'character' is a real person. Because when you read the premise – here is the story of a woman who lost her husband, parents, and both children in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004- you settle in expecting the only narrative we've ever been given about these kinds of tragedies. Hope. Resilience. Healing. Human connection. Learning to grieve and then move forward with a renewed sense of purpose.
Well, this isn't that. This is the story of a woman who, from the moment she's pulled from the water to the very end of the book (six years later), makes very little effort for herself and none at all for anyone else. She doesn't help look for her family. She doesn't console any of the other survivors, in those awful first hours afterwards. She just sits there, sullen and passive, and then lies there, angry and suicidal, and when she finally does rouse herself again, months afterward, it's mostly to harass and abuse the family who is now living in her parents' house. Yes, there is progress, and yes, there are milestones, but no gratitude for the people who have helped her, and no remorse for the way she's treated them.
Here's Film Crit Hulk again, from the same essay:
Meanwhile, Happy-Go-Lucky isn't about the arc of the character, but instead the arc of the audience. Our main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), goes along her way trying to keep the best of her enthusiasm, and people constantly tell her to be more world-weary. To protect herself. To not be so trusting. But instead of Poppy changing, we do. We the audience. ... We are the ones who grow. We are the ones who see things differently and change our perspective. And the effect is quite profound.
And here I think is the Big Idea. If the character changes, we can think "yes, well done" and finish the book and pick up another. But when the character remains a fixed object, WE are the ones who have to move in their orbit – and we are rarely obliging. We don't tend to like being challenged, especially by our entertainment.
And this is a challenging book. If you're thoughtful about it, you might very well finish with some excellent questions. Why do we treat the bereaved as though they owe us something for our sympathy? Why SHOULD someone have to be the picture of grace and gratitude when their whole life is gone? How would this story be different if the author didn't have the luxury of lying in bed for months at a time, being cared for by relatives and keeping a house she can no longer bear to live in?
Like I said, it's a singular book, and while I can't say I enjoyed the act of reading it, it's been paying dividends ever since.
My favorite bit:
I kept going back to Yala, obsessively, over the next months. I scavenged the debris of the hotel. I searched, dug about, scratched my arms on rusted metal. I pounced on fragments of plastic, did this come from one of our toys? Is this Malli's sock? What I really wanted was to find Crazy Crow, the big glove puppet with unruly black feathers that we had given Malli for Christmas, the day before the wave. When he tore open the wrapping and saw it, how he'd lit up.
I never did find Crazy Crow. I stopped searching the day I found the shirt Vik wore on our last evening, Christmas night. It was a lime-green cotton shirt. I remembered him fussing that he didn't want to wear it, it had long sleeves, which he didn't like. Steve rolled up the sleeves for him. "There, that looks smart." When I found the shirt, it was under a spiky bush, half-buried in sand. I pulled it out, not knowing what this piece of tattered yellowing fabric was. I dusted off the sand. Those parts of the shirt that had not been bleached by salt water and sun were still bright green. One of the sleeves was still rolled up.